THE ferryboat from Weihai in North China to Inchon in South Korea is crowded these days with Chinese citizens of Korean descent visiting relatives in South Korea, or South Korean businessmen exploring commercial opportunities in China. These exchanges are bound to accelerate now that Beijing and Seoul have established formal diplomatic relations with each other.
Few aboard the ferry remember when Weihai, then known as Weihaiwei, was an outpost of British empire in the early years of this century, a trophy of the European scramble for bits and pieces of the declining Celestial Empire.
History has taken several turns since that time. China became a republic in 1911, but the imperialist contest in the region continued, with Japan becoming a major player, the military occupant both of Korea and of North China. After Japan's defeat in World War II came the communist triumph in China. The Korean War turned South Korea into an outpost of freedom, the only noncommunist territory on an East Asian mainland that otherwise was solidly colored red.
Ever since, American troops have remained in South Korea to guard against the threat from the communist North. But today, it is North Korea's longtime ruler, Kim Il Sung, who seems isolated. His two former allies and protectors, China and Russia, now have solid diplomatic and economic relationships with South Korea. It's the example of capitalistic success in Seoul that entices Moscow and Beijing. It's the loans and the technical prowess of South Korean industrialists that both capitals crave.
Japan remains the region's only economic superpower, the supplier of investment funds and sophisticated technology to all the Asian mainland. But compared to Japan, South Korea has advantages that the end of the cold war has highlighted.
Unlike Japan, South Korea has no territorial claims against Russia. It has no history of brutal imperialist aggression against China to live down. The Koreans were no less victims of Japanese expansionism than were the Chinese. If Seoul plays its cards right, it will have a pivotal role in the realignment of forces going on in East Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and United States preoccupation with economic recession in an election year.
Tokyo welcomes South Korea's establishment of full diplomatic relations with Beijing, but it also recognizes that a Seoul wheeling and dealing with Moscow and Beijing has more elbow room toward Japan than one that faced an unyielding phalanx of communist foes. Tokyo has responded by warming up its relations with North Korea, taking advantage of any psychological weakness in Pyongyang by promising it economic aid if it will abandon efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities.
For Seoul to realize its full potential in political, economic, and strategic terms, it must achieve reunification of the Korean peninsula, on its own terms, not those of Pyongyang. This was the goal that underlay its assiduous and ultimately successful courting, first of Moscow, then of Beijing. As in Germany's case, once the momentum for reunification gets going, even seemingly impenetrable obstacles could melt away.
But these are scenarios for the future. What is already clear is that the interaction of political and economic diplomacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union has made East Asia a livelier and more interesting region than it was in the days of the cold war.
All the more curious is the relative passivity of American diplomacy. Washington still has a sizable military presence in Japan and in South Korea. But the Bush administration, mired in separate, angry trade disputes with Japan, South Korea, and China, has taken no bold initiatives in Asia comparable to what it has been doing across the Atlantic or in the Middle East.
It may be too much to expect such initiatives in the midst of an election campaign that focuses almost exclusively on domestic issues. But uncertainty about the degree of American interest has a destabilizing effect throughout East Asia. No matter how active or pivotal a role South Korea may play, it needs a strong, interested, committed America. So does Japan. So does China.