A new day with ChinaSouth Korean President Lee Myung-bak, during his state visit to China, agreed with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to upgrade relations between the two countries into a “strategic partnership.” This means diplomatic relations between the two countries, which officially began 16 years ago, will require far closer cooperation not just in economics and culture but also in more sensitive areas of diplomacy and national security. Given the special relationships the two countries have with North Korea, China has virtually upgraded its relations with South Korea to the highest possible level.
Korean-Sino relations have experienced a dramatic expansion since official diplomatic relations kicked off in 1992. Bilateral trade, which only amounted to $5 billion in 1992, soared to $145 billion as of last year, far higher than South Korea’s trade with the United States, $102 billion, and with Japan, $63.6 billion.
The exchange of people, which stood at 130,000 as of 1992, has grown 38-fold since then to 5 million as of last year. Accordingly, relations between the two countries have developed from friendly cooperation to a cooperative partnership and now to a comprehensive strategic partnership. This means the two countries will cooperate on a wider range of issues, including global ones like energy, the environment and anti-terrorism. The leaders of the two countries have also agreed to practice so-called shuttle diplomacy, in which senior government officials from the two countries visit each other frequently to discuss routine diplomatic issues. They also agreed to start discussions to sign a bilateral free trade agreement, recognize each other’s education degrees and other certificates and expand youth exchange programs. These suggestions and plans will lay the groundwork for a new strategic partnership.
China, historically, has been a major player in affairs that affect the Korean Peninsula, and relations with China are bound to be fraught with diplomatic issues that are sensitive to South Korea. Since the beginning of the Lee administration, which has emphasized the importance of alliances with the United States and Japan, there have been concerns that relations with China may sour to some degree. But such concerns will be assuaged with the country’s relations with China being upgraded to a new level.
But the Lee administration still faces a daunting task of promoting national interests while finding a diplomatic balance with the United States in light of its newly upgraded relations with China.