ROK-China relations face challenges

ROK-China relations face challenges

Murals denouncing a Thaad system are seen on a wall in Seongju, South Korea. (Photo: Reuters)
Murals denouncing a Thaad system are seen on a wall in Seongju, South Korea. (Photo: Reuters)

While United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long departed South Korea for home, the news headlines generated by her journey continue unabated around the world.

But one story stands out: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was the only regional leader who did not meet her during the controversial trip that included Taiwan, even though he was in Seoul during her stopover.

Then, a week later Mr Yoon sent his Foreign Affairs Minister Park Jin to meet Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi to further ties as the two countries are commemorating 30 years of friendship this month.

Over time, it has become obvious that Republic of Korea (ROK)-China ties are not what they seem, especially under the Yoon administration. The old thorny issue of the installation of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system has reared its ugly head again.

Putting the two events together, one can appreciate ROK's diplomatic balancing act with China under the watchful eyes of the US and other allies. It must be clear at this juncture that South Korea's current dilemma is unique, given its close proximity and past history with its giant neighbour.

From the beginning, the Yoon administration has made it clear that South Korea wants stable, peaceful and prosperous ties with China. After all, China is the No 1 export market for South Korean products, amounting to 25% of its total exports. Prior to 2017, Chinese tourists used to be a good source of foreign earnings for ROK as well. At the present, Beijing also needs semiconductors from ROK, importing nearly 40% of its production to feed its hungry hi-tech-related industries.

In the past, key security issues, especially the stationing of Thaad, were stumbling blocks for further ROK-China rapprochement. The government at the time decided that with possible nuclear threats from North Korea, it was imperative to have a countermeasure. The decision was made on that basis. Under the government of Moon Jae-in, Thaad was pushed back, opening the way for improved bilateral ties.

However, with the new administration, South Korea's position on Thaad is clear. Last week, Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup made clear that the operation of Thaad is not a matter of negotiation. It is a matter of national defence and an issue of sovereignty. However, China has urged the Yoon administration to follow the "Three Nos" -- no further Thaad deployment, no link with a US-led missile defence system and no three-way alliance with the US and Japan. Seoul has disassociated with the call.

Apparently, Beijing was not convinced of Seoul's intention, due to the system's radar capacity, which could undermine its security interests. Seoul's position was further complicated by the plan to join the consultation on "Chip 4," which has been pushed by the Biden administration, later this month.

Again, Korea will stress that joining this hi-tech supply chain body is also in its national interest to be part of the high-end semiconductor-related ecosystem.

However, with ongoing US-China rivalries rising, ROK is caught in a catch-22 situation as the US is diligently seeking to isolate China from the supply chains of hi-tech products.

For the past three decades, South Korea has been walking a tightrope so as not to upset its staunch security alliance with the US while maintaining excellent trade ties with China.

While Washington tries to decouple security and economic issues, the future of ROK-China relations is increasingly dependent on how the two countries would marry security and economic interests together without one jeopardising the other. For both, it is economic security that each tries to preserve, especially the stability of supply chains.

Previously, ROK and China would get along with diplomatic talks as long as it preserved the so-called "strategic ambiguity", which has been mutually beneficial to the maintenance of stable ties.

Now, some South Korean specialists on China believed that the intensified US-China conflict coupled with the disastrous impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war have shattered past ambiguities, which currently demand more clarity in diplomatic engagements, especially with Beijing.

One way or another, those allies and friends of the US and China are unlikely in the coming days to avoid this dilemma as they are demanding visible support.

In the South Korean democracy, an incoming administration, especially one belonging to an opposing party, will bring in different policies and measures, especially those related to the domestic front as well as foreign affairs.

Throughout the three decades of friendship, South Korea's policies toward China have gone through a cycle of ups and downs but this has not disrupted the overall status quo, which allows strong economic ties. However, it is a different ball game today as the geopolitical landscape has changed radically.

That explains why Mr Wang told Mr Park that their ties should be more mature, independent and stable. In other words, both sides need to have strategic trust based on their national interest. In the weeks to come, South Korea and China will have to continue their dialogue to reach a new modus operandi that will allow their relations to proceed under a more restrictive and contested strategic landscape. During Mr Park's visit, both sides concurred that their disagreement over Thaad should not hamper progress in their bilateral ties.

Following such a pathway, China's latest five-point plan governing ties with South Korea (non-interference, maintenance of supply chain, multilateralism, among others) and Seoul's principles -- mutual respect, equity, mutual benefit and mutual trust enhancement -- can go hand-in-hand.

From this vantage point, both countries have already laid out sufficient common foundations to enhance strategic trust and consolidate their relations.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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