China, South Korea reset bilateral ties

China, South Korea reset bilateral ties

On 13 December, after a year-long feud, South Korean President Moon Jae-In with an entourage of more than 300 business people traveled to Beijing for the first time since his inauguration in an attempt to rebuild the two countries’ relationship, which has been damaged by the presence of the United States’ Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile defense system in South Korea. Although the two countries have made some progress, and this development is an important step in terms of North Korea-related security issues, their underlying differences remain and a continued positive trajectory is not yet certain.

Warmer China-South Korea relations

Relations between Beijing and Seoul have deteriorated significantly since South Korea allowed the United States to install the terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) missile defense system on the Korean peninsula to guard against threats from North Korea. While South Korean President Moon shares China’s opposition to any military action in North Korea, he refuses to give ground to Beijing on the deployment of U.S. anti-missile system amidst North Korean nuclear aggression.

China argues that THAAD poses a threat to Chinese national security and has used its economic clout to punish Seoul in response to THAAD’s deployment earlier this year. The punitive measures included boycotts against Korean cars, movies and television dramas, as well as a ban on group tours to South Korea. Those sanctions impacted trade and tourism for some of South Korea’s biggest companies. China used alleged code violations by South Korean company Lotte as an excuse to shut down its retail facilities in China, since Lotte owns the plot of land used for the missile system’s deployment. According to Hyundai Research estimates, China-imposed sanctions might have cost Seoul $7.5 billion in the first 10 months of this year, about 0.5 percent of its GDP.

During a December 14 meeting between Moon, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and the governor of the People’s Bank of China, China promised to resume stalled projects with South Korean companies and restart high-level dialogue on economic affairs. Beijing even signaled that Chinese President Xi Jinping would consider attending the opening ceremony of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang and also increasing the number of Chinese tourist groups it will send to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Increasing attendance for the games has been a major challenge for Seoul in light of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Rationale behind the bilateral reset

South Korea has been eager to revive its slowing economy and de-escalate tensions in the region. As both parties would be placed at serious risk in the event of conflict on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea and China share common goal in maintaining dialogue with North Korea. For President Moon, who has taken a moderate stance toward North Korea, it is crucial to prevent a government collapse in Pyongyang and deter US military action. On 13 December, Moon and Xi reaffirmed their commitment to a dialogue with North Korea.

A better relationship with China is critical to Moon’s plan to maintain balance between the US-ROK alliance and China. U.S. President Trump has called the U.S.-ROK alliance the “linchpin for security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific” in his vague “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision, a move Beijing fears is meant to counter growing Chinese influence through strategic encirclement in South and East Asia. The new initiative has placed South Korea in a difficult position between the two regional powers, as reflected by their confused remarks in response to Trump’s proposal. South Korea was initially outright opposed to taking such a strong stance alongside the United States; however, they have since reconsidered, stating that South Korea will study the geopolitical impact and diplomatic ramifications to see if this role in the Indo-Pacific may match with their strategic goals.

From China’s point of view, improving relations with South Korea will constrain U.S. action in the region and help to block U.S. military action in North Korea. The Moon administration also demonstrated its sensitivity to Chinese concerns, as it asserted “they would not accept additional THAAD batteries, would not join the U.S.-led regional missile defense network, and would not see trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan defense cooperation as a military alliance.”

Lingering tensions

Although South Korea-China relations have been improved after the four-day summit, some barriers to cooperation remain. According an announcement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China continues to insist that the deployment of THAAD in South Korea compromises Chinese national security and continues to place the relationship at risk.

However, between the imminent security threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and the remilitarization of Japan, Seoul cannot afford to risk its security relationship with the United States. In an interview with China’s CCTV, President Moon said THAAD’s presence was a necessary counter to the looming North Korean threat, but offered some assurance that THAAD’s radar penetration into Chinese territory would be minimized.While Seoul has made a strong effort to mend ties with China, unless Moon is willing to make concessions on South Korean security ties with the United States, South Korean-Chinese relations may not fully thaw.

About Author

Qi Lin

Qi is a Washington, D.C.-based analyst. She specializes in East Asian security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Chinese native speaker and proficient in English. She holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of North Carolina and a Master’s in International Affairs from the George Washington University.