THAAD issue pushes South Korea-China relations to new lows

Posted on : 2017-08-23 17:05 KST Modified on : 2017-08-23 17:05 KST
China expected to continue taking ‘economic retribution’ in response to deployment of missile defense system
In the midst strong criticism from the Chinese media and state officials about THAAD deployment
In the midst strong criticism from the Chinese media and state officials about THAAD deployment

The deployment of the THAAD missile defense system with US troops in South Korea has brought a chill to the air as South Korea and China mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. While former president Park Geun-hye, who decided to deploy THAAD, has been replaced by President Moon Jae-in, the two sides remain at odds, unable to reach a compromise.

Though the two countries upgraded their ties in 2008 to a “partnership for strategic cooperation,” experts say that these current developments only confirm the weakness of their relationship. There are also concerns that if the Moon administration continues to do nothing about South Korea-China relations, which are said to be at their worst point since diplomatic relations were established in 1992, no breakthrough will be forthcoming. On Aug. 21, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong reiterated that “THAAD is the greatest obstacle to developing China-South Korea relations and the most difficult problem since the establishment of diplomatic relations.”

■ South Korea-China ties remain weak

During Moon’s first telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping this past May, Xi used the Chinese phrase “qiu tong hua yi” (求同化異) which can be translated as “pursuing common ground and reconciling differences.” This represented his hope that the new administration would be different from the Park administration.

During Park’s presidency, South Korea-China relations swung from one extreme to the other. In Oct. 2015, Park declared that “South Korea was a key partner in the US policy of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific,” which basically spelled the end of South Korea’s diplomatic balancing act between the US and China. This was just one month after Park defied US opposition to stand alongside Xi on the rampart of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, heralding what was called “rampart diplomacy.” In July of the following year, Park suddenly announced the decision to deploy THAAD, to which China had strongly objected. This was just 10 days after former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn had met with the leaders of China to tell them that no decision had been made about deploying THAAD.

Since the announcement about the decision to deploy THAAD, bilateral relations have quickly chilled. While it’s true that the radical course changes that characterized Park’s diplomacy lost the trust of the Chinese government, one major factor for this chill is thought to be China’s concerns that South Korea is being made a partner in the US-Japan alliance. “The biggest problem is that South Korea-China relations are dependent on US-China relations,” said Yang Gap-yong, chief of research at the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies

■ THAAD reveals South Korea and China’s true intentions

During his first meeting with Moon in Berlin on July 6, Xi expressed his opposition to THAAD in an even firmer tone. This was shortly after Moon underlined during his visit to Washington for his first South Korea-US summit that, “my instructions about an environmental impact assessment are not predicated on a withdrawal of THAAD.”

“During the South Korea-China summit meeting on July 6, Xi declared the THAAD issue to be a ‘key interest.’ This redefinition of the conditions and context of South Korea-China relations was an important signal,” said Kim Heung-gyu, director of the Chinese Policy Research Institute at Ajou University.

While China complains that THAAD is harming its strategic security interests and the regional strategic balance, South Korea counters that THAAD is designed to defend against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat. These claims have different implications.

First, South Korea’s position implies that the Moon administration is siding with previous administrations in their refusal to discard the alliance with the US to save relations with China.

“The Moon administration appears to be doubling down on its commitment to first strengthen the South Korea-US alliance and then to use that as the basis for developing South Korea-China relations,” said Lee Hui-ok, director of the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies.

But China’s perspective is that it can’t just sit back and watch as South Korea is folded into the US-led missile defense system in East Asia, and as increasing cooperation on security matters between South Korea, the US and Japan moves toward the trilateral alliance sought by the US. China regards this as part of the US’s East Asian strategy of encircling China.

■ Is strategic cooperation between South Korea and China possible?

The Moon administration’s original plan was to improve inter-Korean relations and to use this as leverage for resolving the THAAD issue. Moon sent a special envoy to China in May to persuade China of the merits of this approach. “Since China holds to the principle of treating the North Korean nuclear issue and THAAD as separate issues, they indicated the need for a different approach,” said a diplomatic source familiar with circumstances at the time.

Experts generally expect that the chill in South Korea-China relations will continue for a considerable period of time. Not only is the Moon administration treating the THAAD deployment as a fait accompli, but Xi’s remarks during the summit suggest that there is unlikely to be a chance to improve bilateral relations even after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is held this fall.

The South Korean government seems to hold a similar stance. “Either our position about THAAD will have to change, or China will have to reassess the regional environment after the 19th National Congress. Under the present circumstances, it would be difficult for the South Korean government to take proactive measures,” said an official at the Blue House. “The government’s current response [to the THAAD issue] is complacent and irresponsible,” said a former government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For the Moon administration, the prolonging of this situation means that China, which is South Korea’s number one trading partner, will keep taking “economic retribution.” Damage has already been done to various parts of the South Korean economy, and this is expected to get even worse in the future. “The Blue House needs to face up to the severity of the current state of South Korea-China relations. The government needs to start looking into ways to respond,” advised Kim Heung-gyu.

By Kim Oi-hyun, Beijing correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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