China’s rise in both political and economic dimensions inspired a number of debates concerning its perspectives as a regional leader in East Asia, and as a prospective counterweight of the US in the Korean peninsula. Most scholars tend to dwell on this issue using a logical framework of different IR theories. However, such theories provide only partial insights into Sino-Korean economic interdependence and mutual political influence. In-depth examination is needed to reveal important nuances of these relations, and Scott Snyder provides this in his latest book, devoted to the description of the complicated Chinese relationship with both North and South Korea and an effect thereof on the US’s role in East Asia. China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security consists of 3 parts.
First, the author tackles the issue of Sino-South Korean relations (chapters 2–4), highlighting economic interdependence and the mutually beneficial character of these ties. Nevertheless, it is shadowed by unfair economic competition in the regional and global markets, rivalry for strategic influence over North Korea, unresolved border claims (Yanbian Korean autonomous region in the PRC), and historical disputes over whether the ancient Koguryo kingdom should be categorised as Chinese or Korean. As a result, Seoul diversifies its economic options, inking free-trade agreements with the US and the EU, and that limits Chinese political leverage on South Korea through economic instruments. Second, Snyder devotes chapters 5–6 to the analysis of Sino-North Korean relations. The author describes the shift from the “special” to “normal” relations explaining it primarily by China’s failure to utilise economic incentives in an ‘attempt to influence North Korea’s political choices and to prevent North Korean leaders from taking actions contrary to China’s national interests’ (p. 202), and, secondly, by proving extremely unbeneficial character of economic relations with North Korea for China.
Thirdly, in chapters 7–9 Snyder raises an extremely important issue – regional security. This contains three sub-issues: China-South Korea-United States security triangle, Sino-Japanese rivalry, and the influence of Sino-South Korean economic relations on the security in East Asia. As to the first sub-issue, the author highlights ‘the prospects for change in the nature of triangular relations… from that of a “stable marriage”…to that of a “romantic triangle”… with South Korea seeking greater scope of action to develop new relations and China seeking to secure its economic and strategic interests through enhanced cooperation with South Korea’ (p. 168). Nevertheless, Snyder states that the shift from the US-South Korean security alliance to Sino-South Korean is unlikely, at least in the short-term. As to the second sub-issue, the author explores the historical background of Sino-Japanese rivalry and South Korea’s responses to this threat to region’s stability, including the theory of ‘balancer’ (as a non-hegemonic country SK should act as mediator in the region balancing PRC and Japan and attempting to prevent “a new cold war”) and the US-Japanese-South Korean trilateral coordination against China. Also, Snyder considers perspectives of Korean reunification through lenses of Sino-Japanese competition, concluding that it is a potential minefield capable of exacerbating the security dilemma in the region. As to the third issue, South Korea’s antihegemonism principle towards both China and the US is emphasised. Nevertheless, Snyder notes that the US has a certain advantage as it is a distant power, which allows the US to transform security alliance in to political leverage.
Although Snyder makes a valuable contribution to the issue of exploring and explaining Sino-Korean relations and the role of external actors, his work has a few shortcomings. For instance, the book lacks sequence. This is probably because of Snyder’s refusal to use any theoretical framework because of his assumption that theory does not allow one to take into consideration the entire empirics. Another shortcoming is connected with the absence of clearly stated hypotheses. The book contains a considerable amount of information about the region, especially the PRC and two Koreas, relations within and outside of it, and the role of external actors, especially the US. Nevertheless, without succinctly expressed proposals it is only a fact sheet with elements of analysis.
However, China’s Rise and the Two Koreas is a useful book to get an insightful view on the current situation in the region, mutual relations between China, South and North Korea, and new challenges to security and other issues, although they are regarded mostly in terms of possible gains and implications to the US foreign policy in the region.