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A Subdued Anniversary
Twenty-five years on, diplomatic relations between China and ROK need to be more rational and mature
By Ling Shengli | NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 7, 2017

People gather at the gate of South Korea's Defense Ministry to protest the deployment of the THAAD system on July 31 (XINHUA)

Bilateral relations between China and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have made tremendous progress since the two nations first established official diplomatic ties in 1992. Within 16 years, the relations leapfrogged from being simply cooperative, to comprehensively cooperative, and then a strategic and cooperative partnership. In the past 25 years, China and the ROK have made great achievements in maintaining high-level visits, upgrading economic and trade cooperation, and deepening people-to-people exchanges.

But due to polemics between the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), China-ROK relations underwent various twists and turns. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, for example, severely damaged the link between China and South Korea. Looking to the future, it remains to be seen whether China and the ROK could achieve a mature and rational diplomatic relation despite a complex international environment.

25 years of relations

China and the ROK are geographically close and culturally alike. The two countries enjoyed frequent exchanges throughout history but have become estranged in modern times due to various reasons. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, China and the ROK ended mutual hostilities, established diplomatic relations, and ushered in a new stage of their bilateral cooperation. The past 25 years have proved that China-ROK relations have won support from both governments and their citizens. Moreover, developing such exchanges conforms to the common interests of both sides. Bilateral cooperation has scored remarkable achievements in the areas of politics, economy, and people-to-people exchanges.

Politically, there has been an increasing number of high-level visits and a continuous escalation of partnerships. In 1998, China and the ROK established a cooperative partnership to face the 21st century. In 2003, it was upgraded to a comprehensive cooperative partnership. And in 2008, both countries agreed to upgrade their ties into a strategic and cooperative partnership. In July 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Seoul. China and the ROK co-announced that the two countries would pursue the "four partnerships", namely: partnership for common development; partnership for regional peace; partnership for Asia's renewal; and partnership for world prosperity. The beefing up of bilateral relations in a relatively short time can be attributed to joint efforts from the two governments and the results of expanding mutual benefits and deepening mutual trust.

Accelerating bilateral economic cooperation between the two sides serves as the ballast to safeguard bilateral relations. Bilateral trade volume reached $252.58 billion in 2016, 40 times of that in 1992. China is now the largest trading partner, export market and source of imports of the ROK, while the ROK is China's third largest trading partner. Besides the continually growing trade volume, the two countries also signed a free trade agreement which came into effect in the end of 2015. South Korea has also been actively taking part in the establishment and operation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. With increasing economic cooperation as the bedrock, despite setbacks, both countries have shown restraint to avoid further souring of bilateral relations.

The bilateral cooperation in the fields of science, technology, health, sports and tourism has also kept expanding, and people-to-people exchanges have grown increasingly active. This helps consolidate public support for bilateral ties. In 2016, personal exchanges between the two reached 12.96 million trips. In addition, there were about 67,000 ROK students studying in China and 60,000 Chinese students in the ROK, making the two countries the biggest source of overseas students for each other.

National security perceptions

Diplomatic frictions between both countries have occurred sometimes. But major reversals of bilateral relations were due to third party factors such as the issue between the U.S. and the DPRK. Though cooperation in the fields of politics and economy between China and the ROK has been strengthening, collaboration in terms of security remained a vulnerable part of their ties. Currently, the deployment of THAAD and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue are the main source of concerns between the two countries.

Seoul's announcement in July 2016 of the deployment of the THAAD system in the Peninsula led to a chill in China-ROK relations. Divergence in opinion, breakdowns in communication, and a lack of trust regarding the THAAD system brought deepening negative impacts on China-ROK ties. China saw the missile defense system as a threat to its strategic security, and perceived the ROK as acting as a U.S. puppet while jeopardizing the China-ROK strategic and cooperative relationship.

The deteriorating situation regarding the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue was another factor that adversely affected China-ROK relations. The nuclear issue has kept growing since the first nuclear crisis in 1993. Many theories have been aired as to why the issue has failed to be resolved, some pointing toward the U.S.' responsibility, China's liability, or the DPRK's actions. But if we reflect on the past, it is actually a vicious spiral of security dilemmas between Pyongyang and other concerned parties. The worsening situation has had a negative impact on the security environment of Northeast Asia and has widened the gap between China and the ROK's policies toward North Korea. As the nuclear issue dragged on, the threat to the ROK's security strengthened the latter's alliance to the United States.

China has called for concerted efforts and a comprehensive solution to the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. China believes the path of dialogue and negotiation is more effective than confrontation. But Seoul has considered China's solution as pro-Pyongyang and has subsequently tied itself to Washington.

Game changer?

Compared to the 20th anniversary of China-ROK diplomatic relations, the 25th anniversary seemed subdued. But both governments and civil societies took practical actions in showing the intention to restore relations. The two countries' embassies held celebration activities. The leaders of China and the ROK sent out messages of congratulations to each other. President Xi told ROK President Moon Jae-in that he attached great importance to China-ROK relationship and would like to work together to consolidate mutual political trust and handle differences properly. Moon said he wished both countries could develop their relationship into a substantive strategic and cooperative partnership and contribute to the peace and development of Northeast Asia and the world. The China-ROK relationship has not bottomed out, but the situation is unlikely to deteriorate.

After Moon came into power, he has tried a series of measures such as conducting "phone call" and "envoy" diplomacy, as well as promoting dialogue to ease ties with China. However, he made no progress on the THAAD issue. It seems that Moon is taking on a dragging-on-and-waiting-for-changes stance over the issue. At the same time, the Moon administration is conducting multilateral diplomacy with major world powers and Southeast Asian countries. The moment Moon is waiting for comes down to three possibilities: first, a relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula that leads to a delay deployment of the THAAD; second, a deterioration of U.S.-ROK relationship that triggers a halt in the deployment; third, China changes its stance on the THAAD and turns a blind eye to it.

Meanwhile, the improvement of the China-ROK relationship is dependent on cooperation regarding the nuclear issue. China has proposed a "dual-track approach" through which denuclearization of the peninsula and peace mechanism establishment are packaged together and "suspension for suspension," which calls on the DPRK to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-ROK military exercises. The "dual-track approach" aims at solving the problem completely and pushes forward with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as a mechanism to transition toward peace. The "suspension for suspension" plan focuses on getting all sides back to the negotiating table and create necessary conditions to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue. Judging from Moon's stand on not looking for war on the Korean Peninsula, China and the ROK have common interests in maintaining the peace. It is possible that the two countries could work together to implement the "suspension for suspension" proposal. If China and the ROK could work together on the nuclear issue, it is expected the two can narrow their divergence on the perceptions of national security threats; the prominence of THAAD would decline. Thus, relations between China and ROK are more likely to improve than before.

The author is an assistant professor at China Foreign Affairs University

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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