Germany and South Korea readjust their relationships with Russia and China

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used every imaginable threat and inducement — including the ultimate prize of reunification — to bring about a neutral Germany. But German leaders of both the left and the right, from Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt, spurned every Soviet offer. Will authoritarian mercantilism now succeed where communism failed?

Countries join alliances, or entities such as the European Union, because these groups make the benefits and obligations of membership as unambiguous as anything in international relations can be. For Germany and South Korea, however, relationships with historic allies — NATO and the United States, respectively — appear to be changing before our eyes.

Through their huge purchases of goods and promises of even more to come, today’s regimes in Russia and China may be about to achieve by commerce what the Soviets could not achieve with bribery and threats. The scale of that commerce is breathtaking, with German exports to China growing from $25.9 billion a decade ago to $87.6 billion in 2011, while South Korea’s exports have increased from $53 billion to $133 billion during the same period.

A form of stealth neutrality, indeed, appears to be entering both countries’ diplomacy. Witness Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to South Korea and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unwillingness to impose effective sanctions on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, as well as the business-only focus of her just-concluded visit to China. In both Germany and South Korea, the idea that historic alliances may offer fewer tangible benefits — particularly in terms of exports — appears to be taking root, especially among business elites.

Xi’s visit to Seoul was another bold step in China’s systematic efforts to wean South Korea from its commitment to the U.S.-led international economic order. By offering both to permit South Korea to settle its bilateral trade accounts in Chinese currency and to launch the first-ever Sino-South Korean initiative toward North Korea, Xi is seeking to convince Seoul’s leaders that their country’s future, including reunification, will be determined in Beijing. China’s invitation to South Korea to participate in a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank furthers Xi’s efforts to create an alternative financial system, with the bank mimicking the work of the Philippines-based Asia Development Bank .

China’s embrace of South Korea is part of a long-term strategy to turn it into a subordinate state in terms of foreign and national security policy (much as Finland kowtowed to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War). And yet, though courted by all sides in the struggle to maintain stability in Northeast Asia, South Korea now runs the risk of becoming isolated. Every gesture by the South toward one of the protagonists — China, the United States, Japan and North Korea — elicits so much pressure by the others that it must somehow then devise a compensatory policy.

For example, following President Park Geun-hye’s request that Xi honor the Korean assassin of a former Japanese prime minister, to which Xi readily agreed, Park began to discuss joining the U.S.-led ­Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations, to assuage the United States. As China continued to pursue an anti-Japanese propaganda campaign throughout 2013, Park felt obliged to send a private envoy to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to seek talks on reconciling their disputes.

Given its insecurity, a byproduct of the Korean peninsula’s long division, South Korea requires, above all, calm and steady partners. But frequent changes in U.S. policy toward northeast Asia in recent years have disoriented Seoul policymakers while Chinese policy, though consistent, presents South Korea’s leaders with choices that they appear unprepared to make.

As a result, South Korea’s elite appears to be splitting into pro-Chinese and pro-American factions that transcend party lines. Over a period of time, the only beneficiaries are likely to be those who call for “Finlandization” of the Korean peninsula.

Meanwhile, the impact of Germany’s deepening economic ties with Russia on its foreign policy has been evident throughout the Ukraine crisis. Though Merkel frequently admonished the Kremlin about its intervention, German public opinion — particularly that of the country’s business leaders — tied her hands. Indeed, German business has been the main obstacle to imposing the type of systemic sanctions that might have dissuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin from annexing Crimea and continuing to fuel insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

This is not the only recent case in which Germany has distanced itself from its allies and partners. In Libya in 2011, Germany refused to offer even rudimentary material support to the intervention staged by its British and French allies. Germany has also continuously failed to meet its commitment to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense while insisting that troubled European Union economies stick to austerity budgets that limit their deficits to a fixed proportion of economic output.

Indeed, throughout the euro-zone crisis, Germany did the minimum — and always at the last possible moment — to assist its E.U. partners. And German leaders’ obsession with maintaining their country’s “golden decade” of exports appears to have gagged them on topics such as China’s human rights abuses and its aggressive behavior toward its Asian neighbors. That silence is being rewarded with the first-ever joint cabinet sessions between a democracy and a communist dictatorship, which will take place in Berlin this fall.

In both Germany and South Korea, economic strength seems to have produced an illusion of policy independence that is opening a chasm between the countries and their allies — a chasm that revelations of U.S. spying have deepened. Germany and South Korea, however, will gain little, and risk much, if they downgrade their alliance ties in favor of commercially motivated, if unofficial, neutrality. Whatever short-term benefits they receive will be more than offset by their strategic vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia and China.

Yuriko Koike, who served as Japan’s national security adviser from 2006 to 2007 and defense minister in 2007, is a member of the country’s Diet.

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