Korea-China relations on a test bed

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Korea-China relations on a test bed

The author is the head of the China Institute at the JoongAng Ilbo.

As Korea and China celebrate their 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the relationship has been put to the test. The remarks related to Korea made at the regular briefings by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on July 26 and 27 raise concerns that there could be a second Thaad crisis. On July 26, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “60 percent of the chips Korea exported last year came to China.” He added that China would like Korea not to join the so-called Chip 4, a yet-unformed U.S.-led semiconductor alliance potentially with Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

The next day, Zhao brought up the Thaad issue. He said that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration should maintain the Moon Jae-in administration policy of no additional Thaad deployments, no joining of a broader U.S. missile defense system and no Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance.

China has been watching the situation since Korea’s new administration. It has become particularly sensitive after President Yoon Suk-yeol attended the NATO summit in Madrid. At the time, secretary for economic affairs Choi Sang-mok mentioned “alternative markets other than China.” Beijing seems to have taken it as Korea’s attempt to leave China. As the U.S. is seeking decoupling with China, China took that as Korea siding with the U.S. China always looks at issues related to Korea in terms of the United States, with which it has hegemony rivalry. The bilateral issues between Korea and China are serious.

However, China is stirred over the issue that it believes the U.S. is behind, such as in semiconductors and Thaad. Of the two, semiconductors is the urgent issue. America is asking Korea to decide whether to join Chip 4 by the end of August, and China has been opposing desperately since mid-July, mobilizing all kinds of Chinese media, scholars and officials.

What should we do? The new administration is given the task to win the hearts of both China and the United States. While the government is trying to buy time, it is not the ultimate solution. At the time of Thaad, the delay led to retaliation. Especially from now on, issues related to the U.S.-China discord will continue to threaten Korea-China relations. Korea needs its own principles so as not to be swayed each time. The principles should be set based on national interest and consensus. Only then, Korea can build relations with China not to be swayed by the U.S.-China conflict for the next 30 years.
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