China must earn respect, trustSouth Korea became China’s first target to test its newfound clout as a rising economic power before it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. In June 2000, Beijing barred imports of two key Korean exports — cellular phones and polyethylene — a week after Seoul issued a safeguard against Chinese garlic imports by hiking tariffs on them. The move was to protect local farmers from a flood of cheap garlic in compliance with WTO guidelines. Beijing in retaliation bypassed the procedures and principles.
What was at stake for China was garlic imports of less than $10 million, but for Korea, mobile exports to China exceeding $500 million were at stake. Seoul entered negotiations with Beijing, which had previously been disastrous. Getting nowhere, Seoul officials tried a backdoor deal that cost the job for the senior presidential sectary for economic affairs. The talks remained traumatic for Korean bureaucrats.
“What we had could hardly be called negotiations. Nothing went through. They set the date and place at their own convenience and kept demanding the tariffs be returned to former rates. They accused Korea of being unfair to take on garlic when it earned so much from overall trading with China. We pleaded reason and managed to draw an agreement. But the next day a different chief negotiator came to the talks and began everything all over again. It had been excruciating,” a former Korean government official recalled.
Japan fell as the next prey. When Japan slapped safeguard actions against Chinese spring onions, shiitake mushrooms and straw mats in 2001, Beijing slapped punitive duties of 100 percent on imports of Japanese vehicles, mobile phones and air conditioners. Beijing played off Tokyo just as it did Seoul. Having learned how to bully its way out, China stretched economic retaliations even for territorial, human rights and political issues.
China used its economic prowess in territorial claims over the South China Sea against the Philippines and Vietnam from 2009 to 2014 and then in dispute over islets in East China Sea with Japan in 2012 and even against Norway for awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. China intimidated any state that invited the spiritual leader Dalai Lama.
It is no wonder Korean enterprises are fretting about their businesses and ventures in China following Seoul’s decision to install the highly advanced U.S. anti-missile system called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) in southern Korea. From China’s track record, retaliations on the business, economic and trade front are in the making. Chinese media outlets have already been touting the option. But such revenge cannot befit a big country like China. If China really wants to achieve the so-called Chinese dream of being a superpower, it must act like one first.
Beijing’s opposition to a highly powerful arsenal fitted with surveillance radar in its neighboring country is understandable. But it must understand South Korea’s conundrum as well. China was the strongest ally to North Korea in the Korean War. It maintains a so-called blood relationship with the Communist state. Beijing can hardly expect Seoul to stake traditional ties with the U.S. to oblige Chinese demands. Unlike China, South Korea does not have many options as it is surrounded by other powers like Japan and Russia.
Friendship is based on mutual trust. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed Korean officials as pengyou (friends) while asking them to rethink deploying Thaad in Korea. President Park Geun-hye flew to Beijing for the military parade for China’s 70th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War II and its war against Japan — an event most leaders from the democratic world chose to miss.
Korea joined the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank by pledging 4 trillion won and endangering its relationship with Washington and Tokyo, who opposed the creation of an alternative regional bank to the Asian Development Bank, because Seoul wanted to befriend Beijing. The bilateral free trade agreement was also pursued as part of the process to build mutual trust. The trade deal was more than an economic pact. It certified confidence in one another to abide and respect mutually agreed terms, rules and standards. The two countries have built that much good will. All that work cannot be shaken by an installation of weaponry.
Confucius advised that a large state should generously give and receive little in order to get along peacefully with neighbor countries. The sage would not have simply referred to goods. He was advising on a big heart. China’s dream of becoming a global power and reviving sinocentrism cannot be achieved without a price. It must first earn respect and trust. If not, it should at least be consistent and transparent. If it wants to retaliate through economic power, it should do so in justifiable and predictable manner. What is the use of multinational or bilateral frameworks if they are ignored for self-serving purposes? It must act big if it wants to be big. That’s the only way to achieve its dream and live amicably along with its neighbors.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 14, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.