FORMAL ties established between China and South Korea this week will begin to dissipate 45 years of cold-war tension and significantly change power arrangements in the North Pacific - for the better.
These changes had been coming for a long time. Two years ago, Russia normalized relations with Seoul. Beijing, about to take possession of Hong Kong, sees in Seoul a powerful link to international trade and wealth. Seoul obviously sees in China an incomparably huge market for cheap goods.
The big "loser" in the deal is Japan. The largest strategic rationale for Beijing-Seoul ties is that it breaks up Japanese hegemony in the region. Until now, China had very few major industrial states to turn to. Japan was it. And Japan took advantage of that fact in recent years with high-interest loans to Beijing, and with economic deals that had lucrative Tokyo-centered conditions attached to them.
Japan will no longer be the only game in town. A competition will commence. Beijing can now begin to say to Tokyo: "Take it or leave it; we will see what Korea can offer us." Japan's brutal occupation of parts of Korea and China in this century has not been forgotten.
The most delicate part of the rapprochement will be appeasing and bolstering former partners of the two states. Untying the cold-war knot isolates both Taiwan, formerly aligned with South Korea against China, and North Korea, which aligned with China against South Korea.
Taiwan, without its chief ally, is in more diplomatic and security limbo than ever. But as a prosperous Asian economic "mini-dragon," it will probably do just fine doing business-as-usual.
North Korea is another story. Beijing is right to hold Pyongyang at arms length. The cult of leader Kim Il Sung has turned North Korea into a case study in national psychosis. Will North Korea come into the light of international relations - or turn further inward? It is important that talks between the two Koreas begun last spring continue. The next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 15 will be telling.
North Korea should in good faith carry through its agreement for nuclear inspections, though its nukes program appears not - yet - weapons based.