The Korea Herald


S. Korea should start mending China ties soon: experts

By Choi Si-young

Published : June 20, 2023 - 18:37

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The flags of South Korea (right) and China. (123rf) The flags of South Korea (right) and China. (123rf)

As the US and China have agreed to stabilize their escalating rivalry in talks that have partially calmed growing worries over a full-on confrontation between the two superpowers, efforts should be made for South Korea to repair ties with China as soon as possible, preferably by the end of the year, experts said Tuesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands on a more stable relationship during a rare visit by a top American diplomat, the first in five years. The two-day trip that ended Monday, however, has not led to major breakthroughs on a long list of disputes ranging from trade to security -- a divide that has forced other countries to pick sides.

For South Korea, security and trade implications involving Washington and Beijing -- Seoul’s biggest ally and trading partner, respectively -- are something the current Yoon administration wants resolved through policy meant to focus on backing a US-led coalition that often faces pushback from China.

In the last two weeks, Seoul-Beijing ties soured further, with the two countries having called in each other’s top envoy in a tit-for-tat spat over the Chinese ambassador’s public warning against Korea on making a “wrong bet” on China losing out to the US.

Kang Jun-young, a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said Seoul should now see to efforts to mend ties with Beijing, all the while working with Washington, because the two Asian neighbors “could advance common interests.” South Korea and the US have long worked on denuclearizing North Korea.

“Such disarmament is something that China is interested in as well,” Kang said, stressing Seoul could better communicate to Beijing that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula prompted by closer Seoul-Washington ties works to its advantage in the end. China denounces a three-way US-led coalition of South Korea and Japan that is putting checks on Pyongyang.

Another approach the Yoon administration could try to restore ties, Kang added, is toning down its rhetoric over Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island China says could be taken over by force if necessary. Yoon has said he opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo on the island by force.

“That was a textbook answer,” Kang said, referring to any international peace efforts that would not condone any change by coercion. South Korea still respects one China policy so Beijing has nothing to hold against Seoul, according to Kang.

Chung Jae-hung, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, said he sees the need for better Seoul-Beijing ties, adding however such change would come at cost because the Yoon administration would have to potentially walk back on its policy leaning on the US.

“The US and China are in a fight on all fronts, so what’s politically disagreeable is also economically (disagreeable),” Chung said of potential preconditions that China could demand of Korea in order to mend ties.

The Taiwan issue is such a divisive political topic Beijing wants Seoul to back down on, according to Chung.

“But I don’t think the Yoon administration would go for that,” Chung said, referring to Yoon’s national security adviser’s remarks earlier this month that the government is seeking “equal footing” on its ties with China. Cho Tae-yong, the security chief, suggested Seoul would not give in to Beijing’s demands as easily as the previous administration.

But other analysts said China could positively respond to Korea’s outreach, because for Beijing now, economic concerns are greater than political considerations.

“The recent US-China talks are a demonstration of two powers coming together for some sign of economic stability, despite the lingering political differences,” said Choo Jae-woo, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University.