Changing China, changing Korea: 30 years of diplomatic relations and what lies ahead

Posted on : 2022-08-23 16:53 KST Modified on : 2022-08-23 16:53 KST
One expert says Seoul needs to strike the right balance between Washington and Beijing to suit its current weight class
(Getty Images Bank)
(Getty Images Bank)

How should a country handle ties with a China that has changed significantly? South Korea isn’t the only one grappling with the question as it marks the 30th anniversary of its diplomatic relations with China on Wednesday.

As Beijing adopts increasingly aggressive foreign and trade policies — having risen to become one of the world’s “G2 countries” thanks to an unprecedented rate of economic growth — countries around the world are wrestling with the question of what sort of relationship to establish with China.

Consider the results of the most recent opinion survey on perceptions of China shared in late June by the Pew Research Center, a US polling organization, based on its examination of respondents in 19 countries in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. For all countries examined, only 27% of respondents on average expressed positive views of China, while 67% of them shared negative attitudes.

This lower rating of China has translated into a heightened sense of alarm over its power and influence. An average of 66% of respondents in the countries examined agreed that China’s influence has grown over time.

One of the countries where people held that view was South Korea.

According to figures from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, total annual trade between South Korea and China stood at just US$6.4 billion shortly after they established diplomatic relations in 1992. As of last year, that scale had grown to US$301.5 billion, with US$162.9 billion in exports and US$138.6 billion in imports.

This means that trade between the two has increased by over 47 times in less than 30 years. As of late 2021, China was South Korea’s single biggest trade partner.

According to the World Bank, per capita national income in China also rose from just US$366 in 1992 to US$10,500 in 2020 — an increase of 28 times. Over the same period, South Korea’s per capita national income nearly quadrupled from US$8,126 to US$31,489.

A developing country as recently as 30 years ago, China is now truly one of the world’s top two most influential and powerful countries. South Korea, which had been a moderately developed country, has since moved on to become an advanced economy.

Diplomatic ties have brought benefits to both South Korea and China. While their journey has not been without its rough patches — including the “garlic battle” of 2000 and the Northeast Project situation in 2002 — two countries that were once at odds have been strategic partners since 2008.

At least, that’s how the situation seemed before the discord that erupted in 2016 over the decision by South Korea and the US to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system with US Forces Korea.

Emotions on both sides have soured amid the THAAD frictions and other issues. According to Gallup figures, while 59% of South Koreans had expressed positive attitudes toward Chinese President Xi Jinping in July 2014, that rate plunged to 8% as of November 2021.

Meanwhile, a December 2018 survey of 1,000 people in South Korea, China and Japan by the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat showed only 39.5% of Chinese respondents agreeing that they felt “close” to South Korea.

Dependence is a two-way street. When problems arose last year with supplies of urea water solution, new concerns were raised over South Korea’s dependence on China for trade.

China is South Korea’s top trading partner, while South Korea is China’s second biggest. This can also be interpreted as meaning that China depends considerably on trade with South Korea too. The fact that China accounts for around 60% of South Korea’s semiconductor exports means that China relies heavily on South Korean-made semiconductors.

Just as you can’t sacrifice the economy for the sake of security, you can’t sacrifice security for the sake of the economy. This means that South Korea may have reached the end of the line with its framework of relying on “the US for security and China for the economy.”

Beijing is treating THAAD as a tool to pressure Seoul, while Washington is trying to enlist Seoul’s participation in its reorganization of global supply chains.

As was the case with THAAD, this is why the matter of South Korea’s potential participation in Chip 4 — a semiconductor supply chain consultative group that has emerged as a major bone of contention between Seoul and Beijing — should not be looked at as an “either/or” decision.

China has changed a lot since establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea, but so has South Korea. Any sort of unilateral demand or insistence on either side’s part stands to erode the trust that has been established over the past 30 years.

There’s no doubt that China is well aware of its strategic rivalry and intensifying conflict with the US. What about South Korea?

On the campaign trail, Yoon Suk-yeol showed a strongly pro-US, anti-China attitude with his talk of “values diplomacy” and “additional THAAD deployment.” But with the two sides set to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship, he has yet to present a revised strategy for diplomacy with China since taking office.

“The world today is much more complex and interdependent than in the past, and the costs of souring relationships are quite a bit bigger now than we might anticipate,” said Kim Heung-kyu, director of the Ajou University US-China Policy Institute.

“The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s foreign policy has the potential to determine the course of South Korea-China relations over the next 30 years,” he predicted. “This attitude of too easily viewing the world in black-and-white terms based on ideology and values is not a diplomatic approach we should be adopting right now.”

According to Kim, Seoul needs to strike the right balance between Washington and Beijing to suit its current weight class.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter; Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

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