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[Hwang's China and the World] Seeking new Korea-China relations: Evaluating politics and diplomacy

Sept. 21, 2022 - 14:35 By Choi He-suk
Professor Jeon Sung-heung at the Department of Political Science, Sogang UniversityProfessor Wu Xinbo at Fudan University in China
Professor Jeon Sung-heung at the Department of Political Science, Sogang UniversityProfessor Wu Xinbo at Fudan University in China

Now is the time for Korea and China to look back on the past, face the present and talk about the future. Over the past 30 years, Korea-China relations have developed explosively. The establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations was an important turning point in advancing the new era of prosperity in Northeast Asia. And now both Korea and China have grown into the core countries in the international community. China has grown into a major powerhouse in the international community, and Korea has become a globally charming country. Nevertheless, it is also true that there are some friction and conflicts due to the rapid growth and compressed development of the relationship. However, the two countries should endeavor to overcome the current growing pains and build a more mature partnership. Korea and China are neighbors that cannot move away from one another. This geographic condition makes us take an approach in a longer-term perspective, with a longer breath. Meeting the 30th anniversary of Korea-China diplomatic relations this year, we should take it as an opportunity to further strengthen the infrastructure of the relationship and establish a new type of Korea-China relationship that enables strategic communication.

The third series for the New Korea-China relationship this week will be covering politics and diplomacy, following society and culture, and economy and trade over the past two weeks. For this week's discussion, we have invited two experts from the field. Professor Jeon Sung-heung at the Department of Political Science, Sogang University, who was a visiting professor at Renmin University's College of International Relations in China, and professor Wu Xinbo at Fudan University in China, who also serves as the dean of the Institute of International Studies and a policy adviser to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, contributed to today's discussion.

Hwang: What are the overall emotions and evaluations of the entire diplomatic relations between Korea and China?

Wu: Thirty years ago, I think it was in mid-August when I was just settling down in my position and heard that China and South Korea are going to establish diplomatic relations. At the time, I only felt that China is attempting to have another neighboring country as its diplomatic state. However, over the next 30 years, relations between the two countries have made such great progress. It's actually a result that I personally could not expect.

Jeon: The meaning of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and China can be found in the maturity of the bilateral relationship as the number 30 proves it has been a long period of time. Thirty years have passed and it indicates that Korea-China relations have now reached a major turning point, as if moving from one generation to another. Therefore, regardless of the specific situation, it can be said that the relationship between the two countries is at the starting point of seeking new changes from a temporal point of view.

Hwang: What particular meaning does the 30th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between Korea and China have?

Jeon: Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the two countries have achieved remarkable quantitative development across almost all areas. Statistics in respective fields, such as economic trade and human exchanges, support these achievements. On the other hand, as time goes by, conflicts and contradictions between the two countries are increasing at the same time. In particular, the current Korea-China relationship comes from Korea's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment, which served as a turning point in bilateral relations, and China's response to Korea’s decision. This atmosphere has continued and now is firmly fixed as the basic framework of bilateral relations. Nevertheless, the important fact is that Korea and China have made fundamental progress in relations over a 30-year period compared to their previous relations before the establishment of diplomatic ties. The fact that Korea and China have together climbed the steps from hostile relations to friendships, from renouncement to exchange of relations, and from disconnection to connection is a highly significant diplomatic asset for both countries.

Hwang: Then how would you evaluate Korea-China relations in the political and diplomatic aspects?

Wu: Politically, the status of bilateral relations has continuously improved, from partnership to comprehensive partnership, and ultimately to the strategic cooperative partnership. Moreover, the two countries have also maintained close high-level exchanges, and such closeness and frequency of exchanges are quite rare in China’s relations with neighboring countries. Additionally, in terms of diplomatic perspective, the two countries have conducted effective coordination and cooperation in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, promoting cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, and enhancing global governance. These achievements in the last 30 years of diplomatic relations between Korea and China are mainly due to the fact that the two countries have taken a pragmatic and positive attitude in dealing with bilateral relations based on their respective national interests.

Jeon: If we may divide the assessment of Korea-China relations into four areas of economic trade, social culture, and diplomacy and security, the current diplomatic and security fields will be pointed out as the most insufficient part of bilateral relations. This does not necessarily mean that there have been no results, but it is because the actual diplomatic relations between the two countries in the current situation after THAAD are showing enough difficulties to overshadow the existing achievements. First of all, the deepening conflict and competition between the US and China, in terms of their international moves, is exerting considerable binding force on China’s foreign policy. Second, as the North Korean nuclear threat accelerates and inter-Korean relations are strained for a long time, Korea’s choices and diplomatic and security position toward US-China relations are limited. Third, in the case of China, the tone of the conservative hard-line policy has been strengthened since Xi Jinping took power, which eventually reduced China’s own unique flexibility and let China to continue offensive behaviors. Lastly, Korea is also showing a pattern of heading toward dichotomous extremes in both politics and policymaking, centering on ideology and camps.

Hwang: Please tell us more about China’s rapid development in economy and constructive attitude toward peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Wu: I believe these have been a great driving force in the development of bilateral relations. Korea considers its relations with China as one of the most important diplomatic issues, therefore, Korea has continued to strengthen ties between Korea and China by actively developing economic and trade cooperation with China, and by promoting human and cultural exchanges. Of course, it is also true that conflicts and friction exist between the two countries due to differences in the social system and security interests. Korea’s THAAD deployment has brought a significant impact on Korea-China relations, which should be applied as a lesson to recover the relationship.

Hwang: What achievements did Korea and China make in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue?

Jeon: The term "strategic cooperative partnership" that defines Korea and China's relationship does not exactly refer to the current state, but just represents the current status of the bilateral relationship that desires or aims to be a "strategic cooperation partnership." In reality, the current situation between Korea and China is more of an "asymmetry in strategy." Korea and China are under a strange structure in which the two countries’ respective ultimate enemies are the ally and quasi-ally to the opponent. China recognizes the US, Korea’s target country to strengthen its alliance in response to North Korea’s security threats, as its biggest security threat. North Korea, the root of South Korea’s security threats, is a buffer zone that China should protect against the US pressure on China. In this double-layered asymmetry, if the latter factor defines China’s diplomatic choices and actions toward Korea, then the former can be said to be a factor that determines China’s attitude and manner toward Korea.

Hwang: How do you see the new outlook of the two countries’ relations in the next 30 years?

Wu: The development of Korea-China relations over the next 30 years will greatly change the international environment. China will become the world's largest economy, meaning that there is more room for development in Korea-China economic relations and that there will be a high interdependence between the two economies as well. As China’s international status and influence will greatly increase accordingly, Korea should pay more attention to its relations with China while it maintains its alliance with the US. Meanwhile, there is a possibility that the Korean Peninsula will be unified. In case the Korean Peninsula is unified, political, economic, and security influence will be raised, which will increase the economic and political importance of the Korean Peninsula to China in the end. In addition, the trend of economic integration in East Asia will rise further, and the characteristics of regional economic communities will become more prominent. Looking ahead to this future, the two countries should plan the development of Korea-China relations in the framework of national and regional interests and sharing a common destiny.

Hwang: Do you have suggestions for the future development of the Korea-China relationship?

Jeon: I would like to emphasize two things for the "new Korea-China relationship." First, we need to draw a big picture to establish the new bilateral relationship in preparation for the next 30 years, as many changes and dynamics must happen that we cannot imagine for now. It is desirable to seek a future-oriented "symbiotic relationship," not just a "strategic dimensional" one based on interests, but one that goes beyond the general meaning of peaceful coexistence. Also, in case we face a situation in which each other’s positions and interests conflict in reality, probably mutual conflict and friction may become inevitable. If there is one principle that we should keep and apply at that moment, it must be the fact that the situation should not get broader and worsen more than necessary. After the THAAD deployment, the public sentiment between the two countries deteriorated significantly in terms of private sentiment in addition to relations between Korea and China. Along with the recent impact of COVID-19, it is necessary to improve the situation in which the government and the private sector lack communication and dialogue efforts between the two countries.

Wu: On top of all, we must respect each other’s core interests and concerns and work on enhancing mutual political trust. China’s core interest stays in maintaining the stability of its political system, protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and ensuring sustainable economic development, while Korea’s core interests are peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, inter-Korean unification, and sustainable economic development as well. Additionally, among China’s multiple core interests and concerns, political security is the one that cannot be challenged against the Chinese Communist Party’s position and the country’s basic system. In this sense, emphasizing the "One China" policy and the fact that Taiwan is part of China, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is China’s only legitimate government is the main principle that other countries should respect when they are interacting with China. If this principle is broken, the relationship between the countries will be in great trouble.

Hwang: Would there be any concrete and specific plans for further cooperation in order to avoid trouble?

Wu: First, we can think of expanding and deepening the economic integration and cooperation through bilateral and regional cooperation channels. By around 2030, China is expected to be the world's largest economy. Whether Korea can sustain and promote its economic and trade relations with China or not, and whether Korea can play its utmost priority in China’s market or not will be critically important for Korea’s future economy and its sustainable growth. Secondly, social and cultural ties must be strengthened. Cultivating rational and mature mutual recognition is essential and friendship between countries starts from the friendship between people. Since Korea and China are physically close neighbors that cannot move from one another, the social elites should get proactive when people from two countries start to have hostile or negative sentiments toward the other. Lastly, we must endeavor for the substantialization of the strategic cooperative partnership, strengthening the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, promoting cooperative coordination in Northeast Asia and even in East Asia, and co-enhance global governance to a certain level. Korea and China’s active cooperation in regional and international affairs is not only a matter of respective countries’ national interest but is also a way to contribute to the international community.

Hwang: How would you assess the Yoon Suk-yeol government’s policy toward China?

Jeon: I do not think we can clearly say that we have raised or suggested a Chinese policy that is conceptually definable. In addition, although we cannot seriously "evaluate" given that it has not been long since the current government came to the power, we can set several keywords related to the principles that the current government has emphasized in relation to China’s policy. They include "different, but harmonizing," "mutual respect," "reciprocal cooperation," and so on. I see that Korea’s logic that requires China to respect Korea’s sovereign decision for its own security, just as China demands other countries to respect its so-called "core interests," is reflected at the bottom of these wordings. However, as Korea’s related policies are to secure its own security and as China is being wary and suspicious, Korea should be able to persuade China in terms of theory and action, that Korea is not joining the anti-China at the front on the US side.

Wu: The Yoon Suk-yeol administration has announced that it will conduct "value diplomacy" from the very beginning of his office, and is devising ideas to turn Korea’s eyes toward Europe for economic and trade relations and to become a global pivotal state. It makes sense when we think that the new government comes to power with this kind of grand aspiration. However, if Korea plays value diplomacy, it will face the political realities of Asia. We must inherit the wisdom of Asia and observe the situations that flow in the US and Europe more closely. If Korea decouples from the Chinese economy and strengthens its ties to the European economy, the result will be simply like pouring water into a bamboo basket (meaning for nothing). If Korea fails to handle its relationship with China well, it will not only confront difficulties in becoming the global pivotal state but will also lose its status in East Asia and just become US’ diplomatic tool. This is why the two countries will have to maintain developed relations.

Hwang: Are there any words you would like to add?

Jeon: There are a few direct contradictions and conflicts between Korea and China, but mostly due to the indirect forms of collateral effects resulting from the relations with third countries. With this in mind, I think it is more important than anything else to always look at bilateral relationships in a large and wide range and lead this bilateral relationship from a long-term perspective.

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.