China wants to upgrade relations

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China wants to upgrade relations

Korea and China are considering upgrading their bilateral relations from the current “strategic cooperative partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” on the occasion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Seoul on July 3-4, according to multiple government sources.

The upgrade of the 22-year ties between the neighboring countries signals enhanced cooperation in the military, security and safety sectors.

Sources note that China rather than Korea is being more proactive in wanting to raise relations to the next level. China is currently in a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with Russia and Vietnam.

“China has recently reiterated several times that the progress of Sino-South Korean relations is not a one-time phenomenon that is subject to change in accordance with variables such as Japan or the United States,” said one of the sources. “One major goal of Xi’s trip to Seoul is to garner the credit that China recognizes Korea as a long-term partner.”

China has five main types of partnerships and it is proposing the highest level for Korea. The duties and obligations that go with each level are not spelled out and China’s system is not entirely consistent.

By coming for a two-day visit with President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, Xi is officially reciprocating the courtesy shown by Park, who traveled to Beijing for a summit last year. Xi is set to break the precedent set by his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin by choosing to visit South Korea ahead of North Korea.

Beijing’s move, critics say, reflects a rift with Pyongyang that grew after North Korea carried out a widely condemned third nuclear test in February last year. Beijing had specifically warned it not to.

Ever since establishing diplomatic ties in August 1992, Seoul and Beijing have gone through several stages of partnership. They became “partners” in early 1998 under the Kim Dae-jung administration and were upgraded to “cooperative partners” later in the same year. In 2003, Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao leveled up the relationship status to “comprehensive cooperative partners,” which under the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2008 was again upgraded to “comprehensive strategic cooperative partners.”

But the nominal advancement of the partnership hasn’t borne much fruit in the past six years as Sino-South Korean ties cooled after China sided with North Korea when the latter sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010.

Until Park paid her visit to Beijing last year, the ties between South Korea and China were effectively frozen.

Not all Korean officials welcomed the embrace by a neighbor that was an enemy during the inter-Korean war six decades ago. They worry about the impact on the Korea-U.S. alliance and advise Korea to take a more cautious approach. The Korea-U.S. alliance is largely viewed by China as part of the Barack Obama administration’s strategy of “containing” China, or countering its ever-increasing influence.

Still, Korea and China intend to cooperate more in fields that were out of the discussion before. Safety has recently emerged as a big issue in both countries. The Sewol ferry disaster on April 16 was the propeller for Korea, while a recent rise of violence in China by separatists has led to a government fight against terrorism.

“Once Korea and China start building trust through soft security cooperation,” said Yun Duk-min, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, “it will pave way for a higher-level partnership in the future.”

Some of the cooperative measures being mulled include joint rescue and search efforts in case of accidents or disasters in the waters off the Yellow Sea.

BY jUNG WON-YEOb, SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]




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