The Republic of Korea (ROK) was only established after World War II, making it a fairly young country. Before that, the Korean Peninsula was one whole country. Moreover, China and the ROK have only had diplomatic relations since 1992, making the state-to-state relationship relatively new. However, in terms of China and the peninsula, the relationship has a long history.
From this point of view, there is a special sense of intimacy between the people of China and the ROK, both in terms of ideology and culture, and historical inheritance. History was not suspended by the division of the country, as both north and south still dream of reunification.
The ROK was brought quickly into the general pattern of the Cold War by the U.S. after its founding on August 15, 1948. In 1953, after the War to Resist America and Aid Korea (1950-1953), the ROK and the U.S. signed the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea, making them unmistakable allies. At the same time, great changes were taking place in China.
The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, and became a U.S. adversary. During the war on the Korean Peninsula, there were naturally no exchanges between China and the ROK, which only led to greater hostility between them. It was not until the end of the Cold War that China and the ROK formally established diplomatic relations.
After this breakthrough, relations should have normalized, but instead they faced a triple constraint. The first constraint is U.S. policy and the development of Sino-U.S. relations. Since the ROK is a U.S. ally, U.S. policy toward the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), its strategy regarding the peninsula and relations with China affect ROK policy and impact relations between China and the ROK. It is difficult for the ROK to oppose U.S. intentions in the region or refuse U.S. requests. For example, when the U.S. wanted to deploy the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system to the ROK, the ROK agreed, affecting China's security and resulting in a crisis in Sino-ROK relations.
The second constraint involves Sino-DPRK relations and north-south relations on the peninsula. The relationship between the two Koreas is unique, and its ups and downs impact Sino-ROK relations. China has formal diplomatic relations with both countries, but there is no formal diplomatic relationship between the DPRK and the ROK, and they have long been in a state of confrontation. Thus in many cases, China is involved in issues related to the DPRK. For example, during the Cheonan incident, the ROK turned its anger toward China, leading to Sino-ROK tensions.
The third constraint concerns changes in the political situation in the ROK. There are serious contradictions among political parties and between the ROK Government and the people. Political changes often lead to drastic changes in domestic policy, which in turn affect foreign policy and cause severe shocks to Sino-ROK relations. For example, when the Lee Myung-bak administration came to power, the government changed the reconciliation policy of the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration toward the DPRK, causing tension in north-south relations. The Lee government also made important adjustments to its relations with China, affecting Sino-ROK relations.
Despite these constraints, overall relations between the two countries, due to efforts on both sides, have remained stable and moved forward since the establishment of diplomatic relations. According to an analysis, the rapid development of economic relations and related large-scale interpersonal communication became a ballast stone stabilizing Sino-ROK relations.
The two countries established a special relationship of close interdependence and mutual support. It is special because of the unusual structural complementarity and connection between the two sides; that is, the complementarity of technology and markets, along with the convenient geographical link.
Currently, important changes are taking place in the economic structures of both China and the ROK, with China becoming increasingly more competitive in many areas. Nevertheless, the ROK’s competitive advantages in certain aspects, China's huge market potential and their proximity still form a natural combination of great advantages. The most prominent is the large-scale and high-density exchange between the people of the two countries, which has formed a "one-day life circle" between them.
For the future development of their relations, the two countries must enhance mutual understanding and trust. China needs to understand the ROK more thoroughly, because with a better understanding, it can be more effective and reliable in dealing with certain problems. Although the ROK is considered a developed country, in the realm of politics and society, the people are not living tranquil lives. Its history of oppression, divisions among ethnic groups and the presence of U.S. troops are points of contention among ROK citizens. Moreover, the sense of a security crisis propagated by the DPRK’s nuclear program makes people in the ROK feel even more uneasy.
The rapid improvement of China's comprehensive strength has also created complex feelings and a subtle anxiety in the ROK. Some people worry that China will "regain control of the ROK," and that the so-called sadaejuui toward a great power, will be raised to a political level. In the face of this situation, China needs to show the demeanor of a major power. When problems arise, it should avoid the use of sanctions as much as possible so as to not damage relations. On the ROK side, from any point of view, there is no reason to confront China; times have changed. Although the shadow of the Cold War has not been completely eliminated from the Korean Peninsula, it can be said that there are no dark clouds over Sino-ROK relations.
As an ancient poem states, "The joy of life lies in knowing each other heart to heart." The same is true of state-to-state relations. The people of China and the ROK should get to know each other heart to heart. In the new era, the best way for the two countries to get along is to work together to create a bright future.
The author is a member of the Academic Committee of the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, PKU; a member of the Presidium of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Academic Divisions; and Dean and Chair Professor of the Institute of International Studies at Shandong University
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo