The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Conflict between Korea and China is wildly coming

By Korea Herald

Published : June 15, 2023 - 05:31

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In the wake of Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming's "betting" remarks, relations between South Korea and China have soured in just a few days, creating a diplomatic crisis.

Ambassador Xing said on June 8 that somebody who would bet against China in the Sino-US competition should regret it. In response, the South Korean government summoned him the next day to issue the warning that he had violated the Vienna Convention, which stipulates the duty of diplomats.

The Foreign Ministry of China responded that he did nothing wrong, and on June 10 also summoned the South Korean ambassador to China to deliver its complaint.

Three days later, South Korean President Yoon Seok-yul jumped into the quarrel, saying “it is (questionable) whether he has the attitude of mutual respect or promoting friendship as a diplomat.”

The South Korean government's response can be interpreted as signalling that the ambassador could be designated as "persona non grata" if he makes another provocation and that the Chinese authority should take disciplinary measures against him. However, China has sent a message saying: "We will never agree with you, and try if you want to."

This is an embarrassing example of an unwanted escalation of tension. Given that South Korea and China are countries of great diplomatic and economic importance to each other, it is best to avoid a catastrophe in which the two countries' ambassadors are expelled.

How to avoid catastrophic situations? We might find an effective solution if we can identify the negative and positive factors.

Regarding international structure, the strategic competition between the US and China matters. South Korea has been one of the closest allies of the United States for 70 years.

With the end of the Cold War, South Korea has grown as the US and China have maintained cooperative relations for over 20 years. Both nations have become lifelines to Korea. Under such circumstances, the US adopted a policy to check China, making it difficult for Korea and China to continue their positive relations.

Another element might be China's violent diplomacy style. In July 2016, China fiercely criticized the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile battery on the Korean Peninsula to destroy the strategic balance in Northeast Asia and retaliated economically against South Korea.

Korea experienced a staggering loss in terms of economic activities and cultural exchanges. Amid the ongoing THAAD issue, some Chinese influencers claimed some aspects of Korean culture as Chinese and a cultural war broke out between some Korean and Chinese nationals online.

Koreans' favorability with China was generally higher than 50 percent before the THAAD issue. Nowadays, it has plunged to around 30 percent.

The victory of Yoon in the presidential election in March 2022 might be a significant element. The Yoon government has attempted to readjust Korea and China's relationship while strengthening the Korea-US alliance and improving Korea-Japan relations.

The government has emphasized mutual respect in Korea-China relations, implying that China showed no respect for Korea. As the US and Japan are adopting policies to check China, the readjustment of Korea-China relations is equivalent to reserving the conflict sooner or later.

Talking about improvements will be a waste of time if there are only negative factors, but there are also positive factors, and improvement is not impossible.

Surprisingly, a significant positive aspect can be found in US-China relations. Though the two giants are indeed in strategic competition, it is also true that they are pursuing a competitive coexistence, if not a comfortable one, involving partial cooperation rather than full-scale conflict.

It is encouraging that the US and China have been conducting talks on various channels in recent weeks. If US Secretary of State Tony Blinken visits Beijing in the near future and the two countries agree to build a guardrail for orderly competition, the US-China relationship could be very different.

China's recent movements showing a departure from its aggressive diplomacy also look positive. Since the "wolf warrior diplomacy" was related to efforts to ensure the third consecutive term of President Xi Jinping, which took place from October last year to March this year, it is natural to expect China's diplomacy to show more maturity this year.

Xi's leadership when mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran was impressive, and raised expectations for mediation between Russia and Ukraine. Chinese diplomacy's tough stance on South Korea is exceptional, and seems to be related to the Taiwan issue, which China considers sensitive.

Another positive factor is that interdependence between Korea and China is complex and solid in various fields, making it impossible to break up in the short term.

As South Korea is a divided country and confronts North Korea in a hostile manner, cooperation between China and Russia is inevitably essential. And South Korea is destined to become an "open trade country" due to its lack of natural resources. It can't break ties with China, its largest trade partner in the global community.

China will also be at a diplomatic and economic disadvantage if South Korea turns into a completely pro-US, anti-China country. The best scenario for China might be that South Korea remains a strategic companion of China and a pro-US nation.

To sum up, the negative factors appear to be prominent on the outside, but the positive ones on the inside are dominant.

Strategic competition between the US and China and China’s diplomacy style are located in a land of flexibility -- where diplomats can find a new solution.

Improving ties with China is never impossible if the South Korean government has the willingness to do so. Actually, it is not an option, but an obligation when we are dealing with diplomatic affairs focusing on national interests.

The diplomatic crisis between Korea and China appears to be an opportunity for the Yoon government to restructure Seoul-Beijing links to healthy relations, further strengthen the South Korea-US alliance and improve Seoul-Tokyo relations simultaneously.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.