China And South Korea: A Dynamic Dance Of Cooperation And Conflict – Analysis


Although it often “passes under the radar”, it is necessary to point out the importance and significance of bilateral relations between South Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Sino-South Korean relations play a key role in the geopolitical context of East Asia.

These two countries, with their rich cultural and historical heritage and very powerful economies, share a long history of mutual relations. Most often, these relations were bad because the PRC is the main partner of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the main partners of the Republic of Korea are China’s main rivals: the United States and Japan. However, the world is not black and white. Recently, relations between Seoul and Beijing have been growing stronger, although they remain tricky.

Historical context

Relations between Korea (Korean people were one unit until 1945) and China date back thousands of years, but modern diplomatic relations were established only in 1992. The establishment of diplomatic relations was not easy because relations were literally developing with guns, cannons, and bombs.

More specifically, during the Korean War (1950-1953), the Chinese sent their troops to aid the communist DPRK’s offensive against the capitalist Republic of Korea. Although the powerful Chinese army was the key factor most responsible for the defense and survival of N. Korea, the Chinese failed to subjugate South Korea, on whose side the international coalition led by the USA intervened within the UN (the Soviet envoy in the UN Security Council was not present at the vote and did not put veto which turned out to be a fatal mistake!).

The war ended in July 1953 with a stalemate: the establishment of a demilitarized zone that largely followed the 38th parallel. Chinese troops withdrew from North Korea while American troops remained in the South Korea until today. The presence of the Chinese army in the war has been an insurmountable obstacle for the normalization of relations between Seoul and Beijing for a long time. After the war, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea did not establish relations. The PRC had relations only with the DPRK, and the Republic of Korea with the Republic of China (Taiwan), which held a seat in the UN Security Council until 1971.

The fateful hijacking of the plane

During the 1980s, Sino-South Korean relations began to improve during the reign of South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, who implemented the so-called Nordpolitik policy – the policy of normalizing relations with North Korean patrons: the USSR and the PRC. Such a policy sought to improve, first of all, the economic relations of the RK with China and Russia and at the same time to isolate North Korea.

Due to its economic success, South Korea was more desirable as an economic partner. Seoul’s official diplomatic contact with Beijing began with the landing of a hijacked Chinese Hawker Siddeley Trident aircraft on flight CAAC 296 in May 1983 at the US military base in Chuncheon, South Korea. Korea. The plane was hijacked by six Chinese. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately asked the South Korean authorities to return the plane to China along with all crew members, passengers and hijackers in accordance with international provisions. The kidnappers submitted a request to the Korean authorities to allow them to escape to Taiwan. China sent a delegation of 33 officials to Seoul for negotiations.

After three days, on May 8, the two sides reached an agreement: the passengers and crew members were to return to China the next day, and the hijacked plane would be returned immediately after solving the technical problems. The main point of contention between the two sides was the treatment of the kidnappers. The Chinese side requested extradition, but the South Korean government refused. The kidnappers were sentenced by a South Korean court to prison terms of four to six years before being released the following year and sent to Taiwan where they received a hero’s welcome.

Normalization of relations

Bizarre but true, the hijacking of the Chinese aircraft stimulated the development of bilateral relations between Seoul and Beijing. In August 1983, an agreement was reached to allow Chinese civil aircraft to pass through the flight zone of RK. Then, the cooperation between the two countries began in non-political areas such as sports, culture and tourism. Influenced by official diplomatic contacts, South Korean athletes participated in the Davis Cup tennis tournament for the first time in February 1984.

In March 1984, China allowed journalists, academics and separated families to visit each other across the border, and the following month the Chinese national basketball team visited for the first time in S. Korea. Overall bilateral relations improved, leading to the establishment of official diplomatic relations in August 1992. A peace treaty was signed at the ceremony, declaring the official end of hostilities between South Korea and China as a result of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.

After decades of mistrust, relations have finally begun to gradually improve through a series of diplomatic initiatives. Over the years, the two countries have become strategic partners in many fields, including economy, culture and science. In 2004, China became the leading trade partner of the South Korea. After the free trade agreement between the USA and S. Korea was signed in June 2007.

The Koreas and the Chinese began to seek a similar agreement. The China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement was concluded in December 2015. Tariffs on 958 products, including medical equipment and transformers, were lifted. On the first day of 2016, customs duties were abolished on 5,779 products for two years. It is also estimated that Chinese tariffs will be phased out on 5,846 products over the course of a decade. South Korea regularly ran a trade surplus with China, which reached a record 32.5 billion dollars in 2009. Total trade between the two countries exceeded $300 billion in 2014.

Stable relationship development with ups and downs

In November 2010, WikiLeaks documents revealed that two unknown Chinese officials told Deputy Foreign Minister of South Korea, Chun Yung-woo, that China would support the unification of the two Koreas under South Korean leadership, as long as the unified Korea is not hostile to Beijing. In 2010, more than 600.000 Chinese citizens lived in RK, of which 70% are ethnic Koreans from the Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Yanbian in China’s Jilin Province and other parts of China, while approximately 560.000 ROC citizens lived in China. In January 2011, it was announced that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea established two teams of experts on China and on the Mandarin language with the intention of strengthening diplomatic relations.

A 2013 summit between President Park Geun-hye and President Xi Jinping promised further improvement in relations, but relations deteriorated the following year when China expanded its Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea into ROK territory. Despite this, Xi visited South Korea in July 2014 before his ally the DPRK. In the talks, Xi and Park expressed support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and expressed concern over the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which prohibits war as a means of settling international disputes. The following 2015, at the request of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese parliament passed a law allowing the Japanese armed forces to engage more strongly in conflicts abroad.

North Korea and Taiwan – an obstacle to improving relations

In late 2016, the US and South Korea jointly announced the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic defense system in South Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic threats. The move drew opposition from China and Russia, although the Americans and South Koreans argued that the goal was to militarily neutralize the North Korean threat, not limit China’s or Russia’s military capabilities.

However, relations between Seoul and Beijing deteriorated. THAAD was installed in South Korea in the spring of 2017. In China and South Citizen protests broke out in Korea against the deployment of powerful American weapons. The Chinese began to boycott South Korean products such as Kia and Hyundai cars, food products were removed from store shelves, and some Chinese travel agencies stopped organizing trips to the South Korea. However, at the end of October 2017, the two countries ended a year-long diplomatic dispute and began working to get relations back on track.

In March 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to promote dialogue between the two countries over the next three decades. In May of that year, Moon issued a statement saying that South Korea would work with the US to stabilize Taiwan, prompting Chinese warnings. In December 2021, it was announced that senior South Korean diplomats, including Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, would speak to Chinese diplomats online. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese government spokesman, said he hoped the meeting could “have a positive effect on strengthening communication and mutual trust and promoting bilateral relations.” A week earlier, Taiwan’s Digital Science Minister Audrey Tang declined an invitation to speak at a press conference in Seoul. The Taiwan issue is a regular issue affecting Seoul’s relations with Beijing.

The appearance of President Yoon

When the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol became president of South Korea in May 2022, the likelihood that he would detoriate relations with China increased greatly. After all, Yoon spoke negatively about China during the election campaign. Traditionally, conservative South Korean politicians tend to strengthen the alliance with the US and are suspicious of Chinese support for North Korea.

This was partially demonstrated when Yoon took office. In April last year, ahead of a state visit to the US and a meeting with President Joe Biden, Yoon condemned any “attempt to forcefully change the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait, referring to Chinese ideas to take Taiwan by military force. He offered that S. Korea cooperate with the international community to prevent such an outcome. As part of the summit, Biden and Yoon jointly announced the Washington Declaration, which includes measures to strengthen extended deterrence: the establishment of a nuclear consultative group, the exchange of information related to nuclear weapons, and the use of US nuclear weapons such as the B-52 strategic bomber and submarines. Measures are used to deter North Korea but can also refer to China. Yoon’s moves predictably angered China and sparked a months-long diplomatic row that stretched into the summer. Furthermore, Yoon became the first South Korean leader to attend the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania in July 2023. During the summit, he criticized Russia and China, presenting them as threats to international peace just like DPRK.

Yoon’s diplomatic art of levitating between China and America

However, Yoon behaved diplomatically and at the same time tried to maintain a fair relationship with Beijing despite the high level of alliance between the DPRK and China. When US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited South Korea in August 2022 after her visit to Taiwan to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen, Yoon did not meet her. The president’s office said he was on a five-day vacation and had no plans to meet with Pelosi, although he did end up having a phone conversation with her. The Yoon administration was diplomatic in the country’s first Indo-Pacific strategy statement in December 2022, mentioning China as a “key partner” with which “we will cultivate a healthier and more mature relationship as we pursue common interests based on mutual respect and reciprocity guided by international norms and rules.”

Such moves contributed to the stabilization of relations between RK and China. For example, in late November, South Korea resumed trilateral talks with China and Japan, a mechanism that had been dormant since 2019. That format of meetings at the level of foreign ministers paves the way for a possible trilateral summit.

In a surprise new deal that comes into effect this May, Beijing agreed to Seoul’s demands and ordered its fishing boats (including a fishery police force) to keep their location-tracking devices on in South Korean waters to help the South Korean coast guard fight of illegal fishing within South Korea’s exclusive economic zone. It should be mentioned that occasional clashes between Chinese and South Korean fishing boats have occasionally strained relations. Most often, Chinese fishermen entered South Korean waters without permission and caught valuable fish there.

Chinese motives for cooperation

Yoon’s multidimensional foreign policy is one of the reasons why relations between China and South Korea Korea is good, but there are also other motives. Bad economic numbers: falling exports, unsettled inflation, rising unemployment, slowing consumption, production and weak investment inflows into China are prompting Beijing to achieve a tighter partnership with Seoul.

Because of these Chinese economic problems, Xi and Biden met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco in November. The Chinese want the best possible relations with the South Korea to prevent the ongoing connection between Seoul and Tokyo. Beijing does not have particularly good relations with Tokyo. Last year, Yoon held a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. This is the first meeting of its kind in more than a decade.

Seoul and Tokyo have since agreed to revive a military information-sharing agreement, and in August Biden met with Yoon and Kishida at Camp David for the first trilateral summit between the three countries. In November, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with the South Korean and Japanese defense ministers to exchange relevant information on the Far East security environment. It is precisely for these reasons that Beijing seeks to undermine the strengthening of the South Korean-Japanese partnership, which to some extent has an anti-Chinese character.

How Chinese and South Koreans view each other

South Koreans are one of the nations with the highest degree of anti-Chinese sentiment in the entire world. According to Pew Research Center data from 2020, as many as 75% of South Koreans have negative feelings towards China, 24% have positive views and 1% are neutral. The main reasons are support for Pyongyang and the repressive nature of the Chinese regime.

On the other hand, the Chinese do not look too favorably on South Koreans either. A 2017 BBC poll found that only 25% of Chinese had a favorable opinion of South Korea, while 71% expressed an unfavorable opinion. A 2021 survey conducted by Rice University, the University of British Columbia and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy showed that 43% of Chinese people have a bad opinion of the South. Korea, compared to 49% who express a favorable opinion. Apparently the Chinese are friendlier than the South Koreans. This is not strange considering South Korea’s success story, which in addition to economic success brings political and other freedoms that the Chinese can only dream of.

A vital trade exchange

Although the Republic of Korea has always been the winner of trade with China, this changed last year, because for the first time Seoul experienced a deficit in trade with Beijing – as much as $18 billion. South Korean exports to China amounted to USD 124.8 billion (a 20% decrease compared to 2022), and Chinese exports to South To Korea was 142.8 billion USD (a drop of 8% compared to 2002). South Koreans mostly export microchips, electronics, chemical products, cyclic hydrocarbons, refined oil, cars and textiles.

On the other hand, the Chinese mostly export electronic components, computer equipment, mobile phones, toys, clothing and footwear, machinery and equipment, chemical and metal products, and steel. At the same time, in 2023, South Korean exports to the USA increased by 5% (mostly cars and auto parts), which is an indication that during the US-China trade war, South Korea shyly joined US. Major South Korean conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai Motor, LG, SK and Lotte are increasing their investments in the US.

Uncertain trajectory in the future

The year 2024 will be marked by challenges and uncertainties in the bilateral relations of the two Asian powers, and time will tell whether the complex relations will progress or stagnate.

Kang Joon-young, a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University, argues that Xi has many tasks, making it unlikely that Beijing will prioritize relations with South Korea. The main task of the Chinese leader on the domestic front is the economy, which is affected by the crisis and the high rate of youth unemployment. In foreign policy, Xi is expected to put more effort into relations with the US and gaining support from the Global South, while keeping a close eye on Taiwan’s presidential election.

The discussed trilateral summit between Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, if held, could create favorable conditions for the relaxation of relations in the Far East. However, experts claim that it is very unlikely that this will happen in the near future. Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, believes that if the trilateral summit is held before the parliamentary elections in South Korea on April 10 this year, it should be considered a diplomatic achievement of the Yoon administration. Although foreign policy is not a deciding factor in the parliamentary elections, signs of improved relations with China through the trilateral summit could contribute to increased voter support for Yoon and his conservative People’s Power party.

An important factor in Sino-South Korean relations will be the attitude towards DPRK. Kim Jong-un’s regime started the New Year with new threats of war and labeled South Korea as its “main enemy”. The intra-Korean conflict is hurting Seoul’s relations with Beijing. Seoul has urged China to play a constructive role in addressing North Korea’s nuclear threats, but Beijing has been reluctant to do so. We will see soon if there will be an improvement in that area.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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