[Viewpoint] Seoul’s China conundrum

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[Viewpoint] Seoul’s China conundrum

Nearly two decades have passed - 18 years to be precise - since South Korea and China normalized diplomatic relations. That time span can be considered no more than a blink of an eye in the thousands of years of historical interwoven ties between the two lands.

But the two countries have made great strides in economic and cultural relations, not to mention political, diplomatic and security, in recent years.

Bilateral trade volume eclipses South Korea’s combined trade with the United States and Japan, and most of our surplus comes from trading with China. Korea’s rapid economic progress since the late 1990s has been largely attributed to timely inroads into the Chinese market.

On the other hand, Taiwan and Japan, who have maintained touchy relations with China, have been sucked into economic slowdowns since the late 1990s.

In the early stages of our redefined relationship, China drew strict lines between political and economic affairs, focusing largely on enhancing economic relations with South Korea.

But as economic and cultural exchanges broadened and political trust deepened, bilateral ties were upgraded to “strategically cooperative partnership” from “comprehensive cooperative relationship.”

Seoul and Beijing demonstrated tighter cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue and other diplomatic and security affairs, bolstering and sustaining reciprocal amity between the people of the two countries.

But cooperation and conflict inevitably coexist in international relations, the latter of which is heightened when national interests are at stake. As bilateral relations build up, so do conflicts of interest in various fields.

Even amidst amicable ties, the two countries clashed over trade in Chinese garlic in 2000. In 2004, China jeopardized bilateral ties by declaring claims over ancient Korean states and territories with the launch of historical revision campaigns dubbed Northeast Borderland History and Chain of Events Research Project, aimed to revive the glory of greater China’s ancient past.

Yet the two countries avoided head-on collisions by working to restore ties and trust.

But recent fissures in bilateral relations have a different character that may not be easy to mend in a short period of time. The two countries have turned separate ways, with China strengthening ties with its ideological ally North Korea and South Korea doing likewise with the U.S.

Some blame Beijing’s indulgence of North Korea’s reckless and bold challenges and threats to South Korea and the international community.

Anger was augmented when China stood by Pyongyang and refused to join international condemnation after a multinational investigation concluded that North Korea attacked the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan in late March.

In China’s view, its opposition to full-scale joint military drills by South Korea and the U.S., which included a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in its coastal areas, is justifiable because the country is still wounded by the memories of Western invasions in the same sea in the 19th century - regardless of the drill’s purpose of sending a warning to North Korea.

An American military presence in its coastal region with Chinese cities within reach of its arsenal was particularly upsetting at a time when Beijing was criticizing Washington for meddling in its claims over southern Chinese seas and territories.

The North Korean problem and a reinforced South Korea-U.S. security alliance will undoubtedly continue to strain the Sino-South Korean relationship.

First of all, Seoul and Beijing are constantly on thin ice in regards to North Korea as they watch out for signals of a breakdown in the country’s economic and power systems.

For the time being, North Korea can count on its sole ally, China, but may not receive the same warm response from Beijing if its regime hovers on the brink of collapse.

Secondly, the hegemony struggle between China and the U.S. will undoubtedly dent Sino-South Korean ties. If tension between Beijing and Washington increases, Seoul may be asked to take sides.

China may exploit its economic relationship as leverage to pressure South Korea as it did against Taiwan in the early 2000s.

But we cannot change the fact that China remains our largest trading market and key partner to sustaining growth as well as solving North Korean affairs.

To China, South Korea is also an important partner in trade and strategic relations in the regional as well as international context.

We must take a more aggressive initiative in making peace with China and fixing bilateral ties strained from the disputes over the Cheonan disaster and naval drills.

In seeking a stronger alliance with Washington, Seoul should not give the impression that it is acting out of spite against Beijing.

We must display wise and delicate diplomacy to tread between tense Sino-American ties. Only then can we expect continuous strategic cooperation from Beijing and support in tackling North Korea issues.

The decision not to include the controversial U.S. aircraft carrier in the next round of naval drills in East Sea in early September will be the first gesture of reconciliation to Beijing.

Local media should halt its mindless bashing of China and strive to deliver objective news.

We must endeavor to build a more mature and lasting relationship with a country that accounts for an annual trade worth $200 billion and involves human exchanges of more than five million.

Korea’s ties with China have become as indispensable as its alliance with the U.S.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of Chinese studies at Kwangwoon University.

By Shin Sang-jin
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