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The Peninsula

Can South Korea Continue to Balance Relations with the United States and China?

Published May 4, 2021
Category: South Korea

Korea has long worked to maintain at least cordial relationships that balance its larger neighbors. The global U.S.-China competition is the newest iteration of the challenge, with Seoul’s most important ally on one side and its largest trading partner on the other. Although domestic sentiment is souring on China, experts suggest South Korean government officials are not likely to make significant changes to their foreign policy strategy.

The desire to maintain positive Sino-Korean relations was seen after the foreign minister meeting in the beginning of April. South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong traveled to the Chinese city of Xiamen in Fujian Province, where he met with his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Wang Yi. The two officials discussed a wide range of issues, from North Korea, the coronavirus pandemic, and regional trade. Readouts on both sides also referenced that next year will be the 30th anniversary of diplomatic recognition. “China-ROK relations are facing an important opportunity for further development,” noted the Chinese readout.

In addition to these areas, the readouts also show that the foreign ministers discussed the need to manage the softer side of bilateral relations. “Substantive cooperation in areas like culture, economy, environment and history is crucial,” said the South Korean readout, mentioning things like cooperation over historical sites related to the Korean independence movement in China. “The two sides shared the view that continuous promotion and management of friendly sentiments between the two peoples is very important for the…stable development of bilateral relations,” it continued.

The mention of “friendly sentiments” comes as public opinion polls of South Korea indicate strong disapproval of China. According to a recent survey conducted by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, South Korean respondents rated China a 3.1 on a scale of zero to ten, with zero being least favorable, and ten being most favorable. The Council noted that China’s score fell between North Korea (2.8) and Japan (3.2). Respondents also said that China was a security and economic threat, more than it was a security and economic partner.

Such sentiments in South Korea track with similar results in other countries, like the United States, where favorable views of China have hit record lows. “This seems to me to be a really bad harbinger for better relations,” said Orville Schell, a journalist and the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. During a webinar hosted by The Korea Society, he added: “This is kind of a hint of the feelings of the electorate and the atmosphere that China has engendered.”

There is no one source of South Korean discontent with China. In recent years, there have been several high profile incidents where the South Korean public reacted negatively to perceived Chinese arrogance. There was a strong Korean backlash after Chinese state media claimed kimchi was a derivative of a Chinese pickled cabbage dish. Public opposition also forced the cancellation of a television drama because of perceived historical inaccuracies.

Experts say that South Korea has taken a position of “neutrality” by trying to avoid taking sides between the U.S. and China. “I think they’re not recognizing a lot of the genuine security concerns that the PRC presents to South Korea,” said Mathew Ha, a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Playing this neutral bloc I think is what South Korea will continue to do for the foreseeable future,” he added.

While this avoids taking actions that could disrupt its most important relationships, other experts point out that this indecision has costs too. “When South Korea prioritizes neutrality between the U.S. and China, it inevitably is going to have a detrimental effect over the credibility and overt utility of the U,S.-South Korea alliance,” said Yun Sun, Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. “The flexibility or the room for South Korea to make those choices willfully is going to become smaller and smaller.”

Although President Moon has worked to bridge the gap between Washington and Pyongyang, experts say it is difficult for him to play the same role for Beijing. “Even if South Korea is creative and tries to do what it can to…improve relations between the United States and China, I just don’t think that there’s that much that you can do,” said Dr. Gregg Brazinsky, a professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

Mr. Ha points out that many of the issues driving the competition between the U.S. and China don’t directly affect South Korea, like claims in the South China Sea, or intellectual property rights. “You need to find points of commonality, where you can see maybe some kind of bridge that could be formed,” he added. “But right now, there are no bridges to be formed,” he added.

Still, this should not encourage American policymakers to press their South Korean counterparts to do more on China. “I think they have to realize that South Korea needs a stable relationship with China,” said Dr. Brazinsky. “Because of the economic relationship and China’s influence on North Korea, Seoul can’t really have a Cold War or adversarial relationship with China,” he added.

When talking to their Korean counterparts, American officials should center the conversation on the concerns that Seoul itself has regarding China. Mr. Ha suggested things like Chinese incursions into Korean territory, and Chinese economic retaliation for the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system. “Let’s find a conversation that’s directly ROK-China, examine those things, and then kind of push on from there,” he said.

Going forward, experts say China will likely focus its diplomatic efforts at widening the gap between Seoul and Washington over perceived differences over the North Korean issue. At the end of April, the Biden administration said they completed their North Korea policy review. Details are sparse, so it remains to be seen how much overlap there will be with the pro-engagement strategy favored by the Moon administration. “The most important card that China could play is the inter-Korean dialogue and the inter-Korean reconciliation process,” said Director Sun. Beijing has been able to focus its diplomatic efforts on Seoul, as Pyongyang has avoided provocative actions that have pressured Chinese foreign policy. “I think the weak links between the US and South Korea is also the strong links that China will be pushing for,” said Director Sun.

The White House has announced that President Moon is coming to Washington at the end of May, giving American and Korean officials a chance to discuss China in greater detail. Although there are differences, these types of meetings allow for a frank exchange of views to see what is possible for both sides. “We’re going to see these smaller efforts that could lead to bigger openings for cooperation,” said Mr. Ha. “It’ll be modest efforts, but I think things could go a long way if executed properly.”

Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Wei-Te Wong’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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