[Viewpoint] Curbing our reliance on China

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[Viewpoint] Curbing our reliance on China

Relations between Korea and China are strained. Two decades have passed since the two formed diplomatic ties. But both are hardly in a congratulatory mood. The two sides have designated 2012 as the “Year for Friendly Exchanges,” an upgrade from a “Year of Exchanges” commemorated in 2007, the 15th year of diplomatic ties. The qualifying adjective may have been necessary to underscore the need for more friendliness between the two countries.

The two countries have agreed on 45 events, including exchanges and cultural performances, to commemorate the 20th year of the alliance. But the number pales next to over 300 events China and Japan have prepared to celebrate their 40th year of diplomatic relations. In content, many programs also lack substance.

The start of the 20th year of partnership has not been that good. Korea hoped to hold a ceremony celebrating their 20th year timed with President Hu Jintao’s visit to Seoul to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul last week. Hu’s presence would have given more weight to the ceremony as the 15th anniversary had been celebrated with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Seoul discussed the matter with Beijing last year. The latter liked the idea at first. But the event actually was held Tuesday night attended by Chinese vice ministerial-level delegates instead.

Hu may have rejected the offer partly because of a tight schedule or to avoid sending the wrong impression to the country’s ally, North Korea. But he may in fact be relaying his displeasure with Seoul.

South Koreans have recently been outspoken against China from the killing of a Coast Guard officer by a Chinese fisherman, Beijing’s decision to repatriate North Korean defectors despite Seoul’s plea and a clash over China’s renewed claim over Ieodo, a submerged reef off Jeju Island.

According to a poll by local media, South Koreans’ approval rating of China slipped to 12 percent late last year from 20 percent in 2005. Those who answered they disliked the Chinese increased to 40 percent from 24 percent.

Japan underwent similar ups and downs in its relationship with China. The Japanese were most favorable toward the Chinese in 1980 and were most disapproving in 2010. Conflict has increased in parallel with closer ties.

According to Ryosei Kokubun, professor of law and politics at Keio University, at early stage of bilateral relations, leaders of the two countries from both business and political sectors have met often through various channels to iron out differences. But as contacts and exchanges got wider, interaction among leaders of the two countries became lesser, losing the grounds of coordination.

This may be true for our relationship with China as well. We lack understanding toward China and its priority in self-interests.

For instance, China has been reiterating that it would address North Korean defectors based on domestic and international laws as well as the humanitarian perspective. If defectors raise problems in China, it would apply domestic law. If they seek asylum in foreign missions, it would follow international norms. Sending the defectors to a third country would be decided upon the humanitarian aspect.

But that’s just theoretically speaking. According to the JoongAng Ilbo report on Feb. 21, China has demanded the release of Chinese fishermen who were arrested for illegal fishing in Korean waters in return for allowing North Korean defectors to go to the South.

North Korean defectors and criminals are entirely two separate matters. But China sought quid pro quo for its own self-interests. Beijing’s siding with Pyongyang despite its deadly attacks against a South Korean naval ship and inhabited island was also motivated by practical self-interests.

As Korea-China relations broaden, the two will likely clash in various areas. In order to maintain the upper hand in negotiating with the Chinese, we must remember that China places its self-interests ahead of common values like human rights and justice.

In North Korean affairs, we must stop looking to Beijing for help. Instead of seeking mediation from China, we must try to directly talk to North Korea.

Of course, China has become too big to ignore. But we must make efforts to look beyond China.

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

by You Sang-chul
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