By Troy Stangarone
On July 3-4 Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping are set to hold their second summit meeting in little over a year and their fifth meeting overall since coming to office in their respective countries. While the North Korean nuclear issue is expected to be front and center at the summit, a series of underlying issues may impact how successful Park and Xi are at continuing to improve relations between China and South Korea.
When Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping held their first summit meeting in Beijing last year, both were looking to reset a relationship that had cooled in recent years. Disputes over how best to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the nature of the U.S.-Korea alliance had seen relations between the two nations grow increasingly distant. Prior disputes over history had also contributed towards cooling relations.
Over the course of a decade or more, these disputes led to a declining public perception of China among South Koreans after the initial good will of establishing relations a little more than two decades ago. According to polling by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies at the time, only 49.8 percent of South Koreans viewed relations with China as cooperative in nature, with a nearly equal percentage viewed them as competitive. In contrast, 80.2 percent of South Korean’s viewed Seoul’s relationship with the United States as cooperative. Some 76 percent of Koreans also believed that China would be likely to side with North Korea in a renewed conflict as the Lee Myung-bak administration was coming to a close. Additional polling by the Asan Institute had shown that 61 percent of South Korean’s viewed China as a threat post-unification, as opposed to only 9 percent for the United States. However, as a whole, South Koreans tended to view China’s military and economic rise as a threat.
In this context, the optics the first Park-Xi summit mattered more than the substance as setting a clean slate and starting off fresh with two new leaders was more important than settling major disputes between the two countries. The optics of the summit were a significant success as Park Geun-hye was received warmly in Beijing and Xi Jinping made a significant statement by meeting with President Park before meeting with Kim Jong-un. As the same time, there was substance to the summit as the two sides reached agreements on North Korea’s nuclear issue, pushing the Korea-China FTA forward, and fishing disputes.
Now, a year later the perception of China in South Korea has begun to change as well. More than 60 percent of South Koreans believe that relations with China have improved under Park Geun-hye and more than 70 percent believe that they will continue to do so. Less than 35 percent of South Koreans now believe that China would side with North Korea if a second Korean war were to break out. Today, more than 60 percent of South Koreans see the relationship with China as cooperative, while only 33 percent see it as competitive. However, work remains to be done as more than 70 percent of Koreans view China’s economic development as a threat to South Korea and 66 percent see its military expansion as one as well.
As Park and Xi prepare to meet, the two have developed a strong working relationship and Xi is again set to send a significant signal to Pyongyang as he becomes the first Chinese president to visit South Korea prior to meeting with North Korea’s leader. Yet, the concerns expressed in polls in regards to China’s military and economic threat to South Korea are likely reflective of the challenges that lie ahead in continuing to expand relations between China and South Korea.
Relations between China and South Korea stand in contrast with China’s relations with much of the region as territorial disputes have increased tensions with Japan and much of Southeast Asia. Despite making progress on a long-running dispute over Chinese fisherman in South Korean waters at the last summit, the problem continues to persist. Perhaps more concerning is that illegal Chinese fishing increased after the Sewol tragedy and that North Korea has begun to lease fishing rights to Chinese fisherman in South Korean waters along the Northern Limit Line (NLL). In light of the dispute over the validity of the NLL, which North Korea protests, and China’s tactics of using fishing vessels to undermine other territorial claims in the region, and its move to establish a new air defense identification zone last November that overlapped South Korean and Japanese territory, clarification and cooperation on this issue by China is needed to ensure that South Korean territorial waters are respected.
At the same time, Xi Jinping has called for a new security structure in Asia that does not include the United States, South Korea’s most important security partner. He is also expected to ask Park Geun-hye to join a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the United States views as an effort by China to try to exclude it from the region and to rival existing organizations which do similar work in the World Bank and Asia Development Bank. South Korea, like many nations in the region, has long sought to have good relations with both the United States and China while avoiding the choice between China and the United States that seems implicit in the push for a new security architecture and the infrastructure bank. While not formally on the agenda, this will likely be an ongoing discussion between the two sides as they seek to improve relations.
As President Park has previously pointed out, East Asia faces a paradox of improving economic relations and worsening political ties. Last year, trade between South Korea and China reached a new high of $226 billion, while China’s aggressive political nature with many of its neighbors continues to underline the concerns many South Koreans have with China’s military rise. While the summit meeting will likely see a new impetus for the South Korea-China FTA helping to push the economic relationship forward, President Park would be right to continue to try and resolve the Asian paradox to place the reset with China on firmer ground.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. All views expressed here are his own.
Photo is from Korea.net’s flickr creative common stream.