Hidden motives behind China`s `Northeast Project`

Beijing`s unfounded to Goguryeo claim should dispel `China fantasy` among Koreans

Seoul and Beijing have made remarkable progress in the 12 years since establishing formal relations but China`s "Northeast Project" has not only put bilateral ties in jeopardy, it has made many Koreans take a sober look at the country they believe to be the most important to their future.

While the Chinese government averred the project, covering the ancient Goguryeo kingdom and surrounding areas, was an academic endeavor begun in 2002 by such provincial-level governments as Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, it is anything but academic. It was begun much earlier - in 1996 - by the regional academies of social sciences located in those three northeastern provinces and was ratified by none other than Hu Jintao, the current Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, as a national-level project. It is for these reasons that the project was then led by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the party`s policy-development organ, and that three trillion Korean won and about 1,500 people were devoted to it. In brief, it is a political, and not an academic, project of the Chinese central government.

In light of the expected objections from both North and South Korea, as well as from the world community, what prompted China to engineer the historical distortions? First, it stands to reason that the steady power shift in Northeast Asia - including China`s rise, North Korea`s nuclear crisis, readjustments in the U.S.-ROK alliance, and Japan`s elevated status in America`s East Asia strategy -must have a place in it. Second, North Korea`s future and the two-million strong ethnic Koreans in the northeastern provinces must remain a serious concern for China`s political leaders and strategists. Third, a unified Korea`s possible claim over the Gando region well into the future can be nipped in the bud should any ancient histories of China`s current northeastern region be incorporated as part of China`s own proud and rich history.

We Koreans have so far believed in China`s position that an academic issue should be resolved in academic terms only. The dawning reality is that the "Northeast Project" is nothing but the Chinese government`s project, aided by the media, the academic and policy units, and regional governments. The project and the lessons thereof should awaken the Korean people to the dangers of the self-fulfilling prophecy about China. Additionally, the recent "China bashing" in South Korea should be harnessed into a new opportunity not only to rethink China`s strategic intentions towards the Korean Peninsula but also to dispel the self-centered "China fantasy" many of us have held up to now.

China itself is in the throes of change, in all respects. The declining role of communist ideology and the party in Chinese society needs to be replaced by a new nationalism. Its age-old dream to be a real major power should be buttressed by economic development and diplomatic offensive - in East Asia and beyond. A "Great China," it seems, is finally within their reach. So, why not bend history a bit to fit into the image of up-and-coming China? At issue is the grim reality that such intentions and actions by China are inextricably intertwined with our own future. China, like others, has behaved and will behave in a way and to an extent that all major international issues be resolved in accordance with their own rules and principles. The Korean Peninsula is no exception, despite the remarkable success in the economic relationship between South Korea and China. Interests between the two nations could be significantly in conflict with each other when confronted with some concrete issues and longer-term agendas on the Korean Peninsula and in the East Asian region. Prominent examples include, but are not limited to, Korean unification, a North Korean contingency, the future status of U.S. forces in Korea, the question of WMDs in North Korea, and the military capability and strategic orientation of a unified Korea.

As long as China holds fast to its ongoing reform drive, continued stability on the peninsula is a key to its economic and other interests so that it would try to prevent the worsening of ties with Seoul with historical issues. For its part, however, South Korea understands full well that the history of Goguryeo touches upon the national genesis and identity of the Korean people so as to make it a priority issue on South Korea`s crowded list of issues with China.

In order to do this, domestic political stability and an external coalition with others - including a strong alliance with the United States - is a must. In the mid- to longer term, both South Korea and China would need to maintain a more balanced relationship based on hard-nosed national interests and mutual benefits. This is the lesson we need to learn from China`s creeping historical distortions in "Northeast Project." The writer is a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

By Kang Jun-young

(Korea Herald 2004-8-24)