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[Editorial] Mutual respect needed

S. Korea-China relations passing inflection point amid US-China fight for hegemony

Aug. 24, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
South Korea and China on Wednesday mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Their foreign ministers signed a joint statement on the establishment of diplomatic relations on Aug. 24, 1992, in Beijing, China. The two countries ended four decades of hostility from the 1950-1953 Korean War -- though the end of the war was not declared -- and normalized their diplomatic relations.

Their relations have since made leaps and bounds largely thanks to geographical proximity and historical and cultural closeness. Bilateral trade surged 47-fold, from $6.4 billion 30 years ago to $301.5 billion last year. China has become South Korea‘s largest trading partner and South Korea China’s third largest.

Without diplomatic relations with China, South Korea might have had difficulty transitioning from a middle-income country to a high-income economy. It is also an undeniable fact that South Korea was of a great help to China‘s growth as an economic powerhouse.

Their bilateral relations have become inevitably connected, but lately, they are experiencing turbulence.

The focus of US-China relations shifted from cooperation to confrontation several years ago. The ever-fiercer competition for hegemony forced South Korea into a tight spot. Any choice it makes can hardly satisfy both countries. A schematic response of prioritizing security in relations with the US and trade in relations with China is now water under the bridge.

China took issue with the deployment of the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in South Korea, though it is a matter of the latter’s national security, and retaliated against South Korea economically and culturally. The United States demands South Korea follow its strategy to exclude China from an international supply network of strategic items such as semiconductors.

As China accelerated its pursuit of supremacy, South Koreans’ sentiment toward the neighboring country deteriorated. Recent surveys show that South Koreans’ positive sentiment toward China was lower than that toward Japan, even as Tokyo-Seoul ties have been at one of the lowest points due to perennial historical issues stemming from Japan’s colonization. Young Koreans hold unfavorable views of China compared with older people. They feel antipathy against the country for its high-handed attitude toward South Korea and its so-called cultural project to absorb Korean culture into its own. Both countries ought to refrain from unnecessary emotional disputes.

Relations between South Korea and China are passing the point of inflection. Both countries should try to seek compromises over the conflicts and stay on a win-win course.

However, China recently mentioned the “Three Noes and One Restriction” policy in connection with the THAAD issue and “five things both sides should do certainly.” It went too far from the standpoint of interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country. The missile defense system is a matter of security-related sovereignty. China argues that the Moon Jae-in administration promised not to install additional THAAD missiles, not to join the US missile defense network and not to get involved in a possible tripartite military alliance with the US and Japan. Lately, the country made a new argument that the Moon administration promised to limit the operation of the existing THAAD missiles in South Korea.

Relations can hardly last long without mutual respect and trust. China needs to consider the importance of its relations with South Korea from various aspects, including the economy, and seek ways so all can prosper.

The geopolitical nature of the Korean Peninsula is changing as China becomes powerful and competes ever fiercely with the US. As China grows, South Korea’s presence in the country is decreasing. It has posted a trade deficit with China for three straight months from May. South Korea needs to reduce trade dependence on China.

Now is the time to redesign its relations with China. The two sides should further develop their relations on the principle of mutual respect while managing difficult issues separately. High-level exchanges, such as meetings between foreign ministers, need to be regularized. It is also urgent to revive social and cultural exchanges. A growing antipathy toward each other is fatal to the future of their relations.