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Taiwan election result could put S. Korea-China relations to test

Jan. 14, 2024 - 18:28 By Son Ji-hyoung By Kim Arin

Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te, of Democratic Progressive Party's gestures as he attends a rally following the victory in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 13. (Reuters-Yonhap)

The victory of Lai Ching-te of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party in the presidential election on Saturday will put the relationship between South Korea and China to the test, given Seoul's unique geopolitical position and the need to strike a balance between Beijing and Washington, according to experts in Seoul on Sunday.

As China effectively refused to accept the result of the high-stakes election, concerns are mounting as South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol administration has been openly tilting toward cooperation with the United States and Japan to handle nuclear provocations on the Korean Peninsula.

In particular, Yoon has reiterated his stance of opposing China's attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by force, unlike previous South Korean administrations.

An expert said that the new Taiwanese leader’s emphasis on closer alignment with the pro-democracy bloc was something he has in common with the current South Korean administration.

“Lai touched on the message of democracy versus authoritarianism in his speech to a victory rally, which resonates with our administration’s efforts to strengthen the alliance with countries with shared values such as the US and Japan,” said Cho Hyung-jin, a Chinese studies professor at Incheon National University.

Although Biden said after Saturday's election that he "(does) not support independence (of Taiwan)," in line with China's stance, geopolitical concerns in the region surrounding the Taiwan Strait are mounting. Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office was quoted as saying by Xinhua News Agency that Lai's victory "cannot represent the mainstream public opinion on the island."

South Korea's government official was quoted as saying by the Yonhap News Agency that Seoul "expect(s) peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait to be maintained and the peaceful development of cross-strait relations."

Moreover, from South Korea's standpoint, the country cannot ignore the Taiwan Straits' significance as a vital shipping route for South Korean trade, as nearly half of all container ships to and from South Korean ports travel along the strait between China's mainland and Taiwan.

A fishing boat sails at the north end of Pingtan Island, the closest point in China to Taiwan's main island, in China's southeast Fujian province on Jan. 14, the morning after Taiwan's presidential election. (AFP-Yonhap)

An eruption of geopolitical conflict in the region might not only make it difficult for Seoul to find a middle ground, but also hamper the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, because China's role in the process is crucial, another expert said.

"Korea will be worse off in handling the situation on the Korean Peninsula should the conflict between China and the United States deepen," said Kang Jun-young, professor of China studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"Putting diplomatic pressure on China could never be a top priority from South Korea's perspective, unlike the US and Japan."

Seoul has long sought to improve its relationship with China by inviting Chinese President Xi Jinping to South Korea for talks -- via either a bilateral meeting or a three-way meeting with the Japanese leader. This was in hopes of improving ties with its largest trade partner.

Separately, Yoon's office said in September that Seoul is working to invite Xi to South Korea, after Xi was quoted as saying by a South Korean senior government official that he had floated his intention to visit Seoul during his meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo in Hangzhou, China.

Yoon last met Xi during a three-minute encounter in November, just before the APEC formal session began in San Francisco.

But it takes both sides to improve the momentum in bilateral relations, and this is unlikely for now, Kang said.

"China has been far from enthusiastic in restoring ties with South Korea, believing that it can manage (diplomatic pressure from) South Korea," he said.

"South Korea is unlikely to go further than repeatedly calling for the widely accepted international standards such as liberal democracy and a market-oriented economy."

Lee Sang-man, director of the China Research Center at Kyungnam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said China may choose to work to improve its relationship with South Korea "as long as Seoul maintains the status quo" on its diplomatic front.

"The fate of South Korea's ties with China lies in how the relations of China and the United States unravel," Lee said.