[Viewpoint] Losing touch with China

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[Viewpoint] Losing touch with China

South Korea and China marked the 17th anniversary of their diplomatic relations on Monday. There were no official events, except that a concert was hosted privately. Governments often celebrate every fifth anniversary, so the anniversary this year was quiet. Does this mean that the two countries’ relationship is also quiet?

The answer is “no.” Underneath their ties, a torrent flows. The waves of change rising from China are strong.

In early July, the JoongAng Ilbo’s China Institute and Huanqiu Shibao, also known as the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with China’s People’s Daily, conducted an online poll on the two countries’ Internet users.

“Will Korea-China relations develop into a rivalry or partnership?” the poll asked.

Of the Korean Internet users, 71 percent said the two countries will become rivals, while 83 percent of the Chinese Internet users said so. It appears that the two countries’ peoples forecast more conflict than cooperation in their future.

This is a different situation to the one that followed after Seoul and Beijing tied the diplomatic knot in 1992 and upgraded their relationship into a cooperative partnership in 1998. In 2003, the two countries defined their tie as “all-around cooperative partnership” in order to develop a wide spectrum of exchanges and cooperation, not only for the economy but also in terms of society and culture.

Five years later, the relationship was upgraded to “strategic, cooperative partnership,” stressing cooperation in all fields including politics and diplomacy.

The governments have upgraded their relations almost every five years, but it seems people feel that rivalry rather than partnership characterizes relations.

Feng Yuzhong, a Chinese scholar, said the special nature of the Korea-China relationship could be viewed in terms of history, culture, geography and emotion. In three areas the two countries are close, but in terms of emotions they are not yet close enough.

Both Korea and China are having a hard time dealing with the changes from China’s rapid rise. Last year, China’s gross domestic product was $4.4 trillion, the third largest in the world following the United States and Japan.

The trade volume was also the third largest, following the United States and Germany. This means that, inevitably, the gap between China and Korea is widening. In 1992, China’s exports amounted to $85 billion, but went up to $1.43 trillion last year. During the same period, Korea’s exports grew from $76.6 billion to $422 billion.

When the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992, the difference between exports was about $10 billion, but the gap has widened to more than $1 trillion.

Wang Jisi, dean of international affairs at Peking University, said China’s GDP will soon outgrow Japan’s, but he was not sure if Japan could ever accept such a reality.

The situation in Korea is more serious. People are saying that it has become extremely difficult to invite a prominent Chinese scholar to a seminar here.

Scholars in China are largely invited to the United States, and they probably do not see much need to visit Korea.

Now, the task at hand for Korea and Japan in such a changed situation is how to adjust their expectations toward each other. China’s task is to see whether or not it becomes a responsible superpower.

Korea needs to realize that the Chinese no longer consider it to be as important as before.

It will be a crucial miscalculation if Koreans want to deal with China based on the memories of the period when the diplomatic relations were first established.

There is no need to unconditionally praise China’s emergence. At the same time, there is no need to harbor nothing but groundless pessimism toward China.

Korea needs to maintain vigilance and monitor exactly what is happening in China. We need to pay close attention to China’s strategies and how they are implemented.

Such a view is only possible if Korea has respect for and interest in China, taking into account China’s sensitivity from its belief that it has suffered 100 years of disgrace since the middle of the 19th century.

*The writer is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.

by Yu Sang-chul
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