China strategy neededIn 2007 — 15 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China — the two nations enjoyed robust diplomatic and economic ties. Eight years later, Chinese leaders called their South Korean counterparts “partners.” Relations advanced to the level at which local pundits even warned against our overreliance on China in trade.
But the icy ties between Seoul and Beijing these days are perfectly symbolized by both governments’ decision to separately hold scaled-down events in Seoul and Beijing to commemorate the 25th anniversary today.
The chill set in after China vehemently opposed the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield in South Korea. Despite Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s urge in 2014 to enhance the relationship to a “mature strategic cooperation partnership,” reality points in the opposite direction.
Can the ties be thawed? A plethora of security analysts don’t think so. While Seoul says the Thaad battery is aimed at defending against any missile attack by Pyongyang, Beijing insists it is deployed to spy on China and prevent its growing power. Beijing simply does not want to listen to Seoul’s frank explanations at all.
Military analysts say China’s external strategy is to build up its clout. In the past, China approved of U.S. Forces in South Korea because of their positive role in deterring the North’s provocations, but not anymore. Beijing considers the U.S. forces as a security burden due to its growing conviction that the Korean Peninsula should be under its influence.
We hardly expect the conflict over Thaad to be resolved quickly. That means friction could be repeated over and over as the geopolitical power dynamics undergo a drastic shift in the region. That calls for a dramatic change in our strategy with China, given its amazing transformation into a global superpower aspiring to deeply influence a new international order.
A mighty China poses a daunting challenge to South Korea: How to react when Beijing behaves offensively, as exemplified by its relentless retaliations over the Thaad deployment? The standards should be our national interests. However, without a domestic consensus on how to maintain our interests, we cannot deal with China down the road. At the same time, we must keep our national integrity as well by confronting China at some points and negotiating with it at others. We must take on this challenge to survive in the 21st century.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 24, Page 30