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[Editorial] Korea-China relations

Seoul, Beijing should continue to hold talks to manage conflict, seek cooperation amid challenges

By Korea Herald

Published : May 16, 2024 - 05:30

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South Korea and China expressed a wish to improve ties in their first foreign ministerial talks in seven months. Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on Monday, marking the first visit by South Korea’s top diplomat to the Chinese capital in more than six years.

It is not without meaning that the two top diplomats expressed their goodwill to improve the countries’ strategic cooperative partnership. Bilateral ties had soured after South Korea aligned more closely with the US under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration. In June last year, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea publicly warned that Seoul would "definitely regret it" if it "bets on China's defeat" in its rivalry with the US.

The only agreement Cho and Wang reached Monday, however, was to work together to successfully hold a trilateral summit with Japan, which is expected to take place in Seoul later this month, and visit each other more often. Other than that, the two merely said what they wanted to say in diplomatic ways.

Wang expressed hope that China’s relationship with South Korea will develop further "without interference," apparently cautioning against Seoul’s close alignment with Washington in global supply chains and other strategic areas of US-China rivalry.

Wang said the difficulties facing the two countries’ ties are "not in line with the mutual interests of our two countries, and nor are they something that China wants to see."

"I hope that we join our forces to push for a stable and healthy development of the China-South Korea relationship, as South Korea, together with China, maintains its direction toward mutual goodwill ... and upholds the goal of mutual cooperation and face each other and move forward, while excluding interference," Wang said through an interpreter.

Cho pointed out that Seoul’s ties with Beijing and its ties with Washington are not a "zero-sum" relationship, meaning that aligning closely with one country does not mean drifting away from the other.

Cho called for substantializing the future direction of bilateral relations and building bilateral trust, and hoped that his visit will be the "first step toward untangling the threads" between the two countries and "opening up a new avenue for cooperation."

Cho also raised concern over the growing "unlawful" military cooperation between North Korea and Russia, and asked for China's role as a permanent UN Security Council member to promote peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and for the North's denuclearization.

He delivered Seoul's concern over the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors in China and requested Beijing's cooperation to help the escapees seek refuge in a country of their choice.

Wang confirmed that there is no change in China’s policy on the Korean Peninsula, reiterating that his country will play a "constructive role" to help resolve Korean Peninsula issues.

He said he hopes Seoul conforms with Beijing’s “One China” principle, and takes a prudent approach towards the Taiwan issue.

Wang said South Korea and China should “jointly oppose protectionism, defend the international free trade system and guarantee the stability of production and supply chains,” apparently stressing that Seoul should not string along with the US strategy to have its allies join hands to keep China in check in terms of supply chains and technology.

Despite such differences, Seoul and Beijing should hold more high-level talks to manage conflicts. Growing signs of a new Cold War around the Korean Peninsula and the intensifying US-China rivalry will continue to restrain the two countries’ relations, but they should still seek economic cooperation and respect their differences. The upcoming three-way summit with Japan should contribute toward easing tensions in the region and strengthening cooperation among the neighboring countries.