(220825) -- SEOUL, Aug. 25, 2022 (Xinhua) -- South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks at a reception marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 24, 2022. At the reception, held by the Chinese embassy in South Korea, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin respectively read out congratulatory messages over the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties from Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. (Xinhua/Wang Yiliang)

OPINION – Challenges and opportunities in China’s relations with South Korea

The 30thanniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea on August 24, 2022 was marked by celebrations, active engagement from both sides, challenges and opportunities for the two countries in the coming years.

First, the Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged congratulatory messages with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol on August 24. President Xi remarked that Sino-South Korean have been developing quickly due to the mutual respect and trust from both sides, the accommodation of each other’s core interests, and the enhancement of understanding through communications. Moreover, both countries, according to Xi, adopt the principles of openness and inclusiveness, safeguarding regional peace and stability, promoting regional economic development, and preserving the basic norms in dealing with international relations. All these are valuable assets that both sides, President Xi said, should cherish.

President Xi also expressed his desire that both sides can maintain good friendly and neighborly relations, consolidate strategic communications and focus on cooperation.

On August 9, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met the South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin in Qingdao. Park Jin said that the South Korean side insists on denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula, pointing to the “unprecedented threat” to regional peace, and hoping that the Chinese side can play a “constructive role” of fostering dialogue with North Korea. Park Jin appealed to China to attach importance to maintain strategic communication, expressing his hope that President Xi would be able to visit South Korea. Park Jin also appealed to the need for stability in logistical supplies – an indication that the South Korean side was worried about China’s technology policy and the impact of its rivalry with the US.

In response to Park Jin’s concerns, Wang Yi said that the Sino-South Korean relations had undergone “winds and rainfall,” that both sides remain safe neighbors coexisting with each other as necessary partners, and that both sides should insist on “independence and autonomy,” “non-interference” from outside, continuous openness, mutual respect and equality, multilateralism and the adherence to the UN Charter.

One big challenge in Sino-South Korean relations is the Chinese concern about the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THADD) anti-missile system in South Korea – a defensive measure which have damaged their relationships since 2017. China is deeply concerned about its national security threat in the face of the THADD system, but South Korea has been aided by the US to deter the North Korean “military threat.”

As long as the principle of deterrence is used in dealing with national security in the Korean Peninsula, the relations between China, South Korea, US and North Korea are complex. North Korea is keen to develop and maintain its strong military, including the testing and development of its nuclear weapons. South Korea and the US see North Korea as a serious military “threat.” China as a friendly neighbor of North Korea can play the role of being a middleman between Pyongyang on the one hand and South Korea and the US on the other hand.

On August 5, the South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol did not meet the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi due to his “scheduled vacation,” shortly after her politically provocative visit to Taiwan. President Yoon’s gesture appeared to avoid antagonizing China at a politically sensitive time although he had a 40-minute phone discussion with Pelosi. South Korea was sensitive to the way in which the US tackles the issue of Taiwan.

However, in the era of a new Cold War in East Asia where the US is competing with China in economic and military spheres, a recent move made by South Korea to join the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and Chip 4 triggers China’s sensitivity. The recent global shortages of semiconductor have made the US President Joe Biden and his think tank propose forming a Chips Alliance composed of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. China, however, sees this Chip 4 Alliance as a pro-American alliance that threatens its security interests.

Ideologically, South Korea cherishes universal values such as democracy, freedom and human rights like the US. The South Korean Consul General in Hong Kong, Baek Yong-chun, has recently remarked that Hong Kong must continue its position as an open and an intermediary trading hub different from mainland China to maintain its international appeal. A free and open business environment in Hong Kong is essential for international business, according to Baek, who skillfully avoided mentioning democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, which has to some extent been mainlandized in the recent years after years of political turmoil and struggles.

Consul General Baek added that if Hong Kong were the same as China, then the territory would have no rationale to exist – a remark implying that he was quite concerned about the extent of mainlandization of Hong Kong.

In fact, public opinion in South Korea has shown that more young people have developed negative attitudes toward China. A poll demonstrated that 80 percent of the South Koreans have engendered negative sentiments on China. This finding is perhaps not surprising because of a very different political culture in South Korea and the widespread international perception that the rise of China has been marked by its assertiveness in the diplomatic, political, economic and military spheres.

Perhaps fortunately, the South Korean foreign policy is made and driven by political elites, career diplomats and Sinologists who understand how to deal with China skillfully, tactfully and assertively if necessary.

In early August, it was reported that Chinese officials attempted to exert pressure on the South Korean side to observe “three promises” made by the previous Moon Jae-in government, namely the “promises” of “not participating in the THAAD system, not adding any new THAAD anti-missile system, and not promoting the military alliance between South Korea, US and Japan.” However, the South Korean media reported that the South Korean officials in Beijing argued that these were “not promises” made by the Moon government.

During the celebration of the 30thanniversary of Sino-South Korean relations, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended a celebration event in Beijing with Chung Jae-ho, the South Korean ambassador to China. They both read the congratulatory messages from their presidents. Wang interestingly called on both sides to synergize developmental strategies by deepening cooperation in areas such as high-tech manufacturing, big data and green economy. He added that both sides should oppose decoupling or severing supply chains, safeguard the free trade system, and jointly maintain the openness and inclusiveness of industrial supply chains.

Wang’s remarks clearly attempted to calm the concerns about whether China’s economic policies might turn more self-protective. Recent reports on China have pointed to the continuation of economic pragmatism. 

Perhaps more innovative efforts at developing an East Asian Free Trade Economic Region, which can be considered and made on the basis of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and which is composed of China, Japan and South Korea, would bring about peace and stability in the long run.

Grasping the chance of celebrating the 30thanniversary of bilateral relations between China and South Korea, the Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se met China’s top ambassador in Seoul, Xing Haiming. Kwon stressed that his ministry would closely communicate with the Chinese side to push ahead with the policies of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the consolidation of cooperation. Kwon also called on China to play a “constructive role” to elicit any positive response from North Korea on President Yoon’s “audacious plan” of seeking to help Pyongyang to improve its economy in return for denuclearization.

In conclusion, the 30thanniversary of Sino-South Korean relations are marked by a common desire to enhance cooperation and deepen mutual exchanges in all areas. However, the issue of THAAD remains a baffling problem in Sino-South Korean relations. If both sides can tackle economic relations and focus on non-sensitive areas of cooperation, Sino-South Korean relations remain optimistic. After all, China remains a crucial middleman that can bridge the communication gap and frosty relations between South Korea and North Korea. The challenge is for South Korea to strike a very precarious balance between its tendency to be dragged into the military alliance with the US and its necessity of adopting a skillful diplomacy toward China in the very complex relations between Seoul, Pyongyang, Washington and Beijing.