This year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Over the past 30 years, China and the ROK have achieved an all-round and rapid elevation in political, economic, diplomatic and people-to-people exchanges that have resulted in mutually beneficial outcomes. While the strategic partnership between the two sides has developed steadily, relations have been simultaneously affected by changes in both internal and external environments. As such, China-ROK relations have reached a crucial juncture in the face of multiple challenges.
On August 18, 2022, Taihe Institute (TI) and the Trilateral Cooperation Studies Center of Shandong University co-organized an online and on-site seminar on the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and the ROK. Diplomats and scholars from both China and the ROK had in-depth exchanges under the theme of “30 Years of the Establishment of China-ROK Diplomatic Relations - Retrospect and Prospect.” In the first of two sessions, Mr. Wang Jian, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute acted as moderator, while the second session was moderated by Mr. Niu Linjie, Distinguished Professor of Shandong University.
In his opening address, Wu Hailong, President of China Public Diplomacy Association, noted that China-ROK relations are receiving wide international attention as they enter a new and challenging period. Importantly, China’s position and policies on the ROK, and its high hopes for friendly relations and extensive cooperation in various fields, remain unchanged. China stays committed to working with the ROK to boost mutual understanding and mutual trust between the two peoples, and to jointly safeguarding the regional peace and stability of Northeast Asia. China will not do things that could harm the interests of the ROK or hurt the feelings of its people, nor the things that would bring about turbulence in the region.
At present, the Chinese people have the following concerns on the new ROK government’s policies toward China. First, whether the ROK will continue to maintain and promote friendly bilateral relations. If the ROK were to move away from China to please the United States, or even help the U.S. to contain China, then the ROK’s policy toward China would step on a crooked road, which would surely lead to a regress in bilateral relations. Second, China is concerned about the close relations between the ROK and NATO. China never wants to see a “Global NATO,” or wants it to expand its activities into the Asia-Pacific region. China hopes that the ROK will think twice before developing relations with NATO. Third, how should China and the ROK deal with their disagreements and differences in terms of their own domestic security concerns? For example, justified by national security, the ROK has permitted the United States to deploy a THAAD system in the ROK, which poses a threat to China’s security. While China is delighted to see the ROK and Japan improve their bilateral relations, it is concerned that the ROK is urged on by the U.S., whose intention, in essence, is to address the so-called “China threat” by establishing a three-way alliance of the U.S., Japan and the ROK. If the ROK is to improve relations with Japan, inspired by the same intention, it would lead to regional turbulence, or even conflicts and confrontation. Between China and the ROK there are no fundamental conflicts in interests, still less, strategic competition. China-ROK relations should not be subject to any third-party intervention, and should always keep moving in the right direction toward stability and soundness, and stay committed to safeguarding peace and stability in the Northeast Asia and Asia-Pacific region.
Chung Jae-ho, the ROK Ambassador to China, stated in his opening remarks that the year of 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and the ROK, and is a crucial time to redraw the blueprint of bilateral relations. China and the ROK should, based on the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, strive to promote bilateral relations towards a healthier and more stable track. At present, many people have expressed their concerns over China-ROK relations because the two sides are in a transitional period from abnormal to normal relations. Too much concern, however, is not conducive to the sound development of bilateral relations. In the future, China and the ROK should increase both dialogues and exchanges, and open wide the window of dialogue especially when problems and crises emerge. The peoples of the two countries, and in particular the younger generation, have witnessed serious bilateral misunderstandings; thus, the academic circles of the two countries should strive to provide solutions to rectify the problem.
Qiu Guohong, former Chinese Ambassador to the ROK, expressed the view that over the past three decades since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the ROK, the world has seen bilateral relations jointly achieve leapfrog development. These achievements can be seen in the following three features. First, China and the ROK share wide common interests and similar positions in terms of peace on the Korean Peninsula and de-nuclearization. The two countries have been committed to maintaining multi-layer and high-level strategic communication and coordination, and jointly defending peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. Second, China and the ROK are at different development stages and have strong economic complementarity. The two sides have achieved common development through mutually beneficial cooperation. Third, China and the ROK have jointly responded to all kinds of global challenges, making a great contribution to world peace and stability. Since the inauguration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, China-ROK relations have experienced a good smooth start, even while disruptive factors still exist in the development of bilateral relations. First, the differences and disagreements of the two sides in respecting each other’s political institutions and core interests have been widening. Second, third-party disruptive factors are increasing. Third, the arguments of some ROK government officials about decoupling with China have raised concerns. To translate the challenges into opportunities and improve their bilateral relations, China and the ROK should bolster strategic mutual trust, expand mutually-beneficial cooperation and improve mutual understandings of both peoples.
Shin Jung-seung, former ROK Ambassador to China, pointed out that the main objectives of the ROK in establishing diplomatic ties with China, were to enter China’s huge markets and win China’s support in international affairs. Over the past three decades, however, the two sides have not realized sufficient results in both the political and security fields. Affected by the consequences of THAAD deployment, COVID-19, and changing external environments, bilateral relations between the two sides face low vitality, rising asymmetry of exchanges and cooperation, and growing national sentiments that may invoke conflict. Moreover, as China upgraded its industries, both countries have seen increasing competitions, which has undermined the drivers of bilateral economic cooperation. Looking forward, in the context of expanding cooperation, China and the ROK should enhance political mutual trust through increased mutual visits and maintenance of strategic communications. Moreover, the ROK’s crucial role in regional and global issues, including climate change and pandemic containment form a strong basis for expanding bilateral cooperation. Last but not least, the intellectuals and media from the two countries should work together to change the negative attitudes between the two peoples.
Lee Hee-ok, Director of the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, noted that China and the ROK should establish pragmatic and fact-based bilateral relations. The two countries are important economic partners and can deliver win-win outcomes through structuralized trade relations and stable supply chains. The two sides need to both increase and improve communications between their young peoples. Both sides need to acknowledge their differences, seek common ground and cooperate with a long-term view into the future. Both sides should cooperate on, and search for, constructive plans to realize carbon neutrality targets, contain the pandemic, crack down on terrorism, and prevent and control natural disasters. Since it is impossible to predicate and prevent natural disasters, the two countries need to establish a crisis management mechanism to promptly bring crises under institutional management and control when they occur.
Hu Jiping, Vice President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, stressed that since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, NATO’s attempt to interfere with Asian security has received wide attention. NATO, said Hu, is merely the strategic instrument for the U.S. to pursue hegemony. At present, the U.S. hopes to invoke rivalry between China and Japan, and between China and the ROK, and to align Japan and the ROK to counter China. Apart from hyping up the so called “China threat,” the U.S. has driven a wedge between China and Japan and the ROK, in terms of political and secure mutual trust, by deploying THAAD and medium-range missiles. In addition, the U.S. has tried to establish an “anti-China alliance” in both semiconductors and their supply chains. East Asian countries, especially the ROK, should learn a lesson from the European crisis and not heighten confrontation among regional countries. Instead, they should continuously strengthen political communication and gradually resolve historical problems, while promoting regional economic development through enhanced cooperation, to achieve peace, stability and prosperity in East Asia.
Lee Dong-ryul, Professor at Dongduk Women’s University, noted that, over the past 30 years, the diplomatic ties between China and the ROK have underpinned rapid leapfrog development. While, developing China-ROK relations is conducive for both sides and is supported by strong motivations and drivers, the relatively short time of established bilateral relations has produced a pronounced side effect of unconsolidated foundation. Since 2008, the US acceleration of its “pivot to Asia” strategy has caused regional historical and maritime issues to emerge and increased instability in China-ROK relations. China-ROK bilateral relations are built upon coordination over the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and economic cooperation. Currently, economic cooperation between both countries lacks new drivers, and no progress has been made on the nuclear issue. As such, the two countries should strengthen their capabilities to overcome difficulties and manage crises. Based on mutual respect, the media, opinion leaders, and peoples of both countries can enhance mutual understanding, stand in the other’s shoes to learn of their difficulties, and therefore avoid augmenting disagreements and concerns. China and the ROK are and will remain neighbors, and should therefore, explore new areas and create new drivers to further cooperation.
Zheng Jiyong, Director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University, reiterated that China-ROK relations face both geopolitical and economic challenges presented by Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and strategic competition between China and the U.S. Thus, both sides should reflect deeply and act cautiously to strengthen exchanges and build mutual respect. Special attention should be paid to new challenges in the field of military security. The ROK’s recent introduction of US strategic assets, like the THAAD system and the joint military drills are of particular concern and the ROK should not be reliant on external forces to augment its global influence. A major challenge for the ROK is how to manage its relations with China as strategic competition between China and the United States intensifies. China and the ROK must better manage the risk factors arising from bilateral relations. Moreover, the ROK needs to gain a more accurate assessment of China-U.S. strategic evolution and treat China’s core interests, especially the Taiwan question, with greater caution.
Han Xiandong, Executive Director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at China University of Political Science and Law, opined that the multipolar world is unequal and the decline of the U.S. is inevitable. The U.S. is creating conflicts among major countries in order to maintain its hegemony, and hypes the so-called “China threat” in Asia in an attempt to control Japan and the ROK. The strategic orientation of East Asian countries matters for regional security under the US strategy, and “Alliance with the U.S.” cannot be used as an “excuse” to engage in bloc confrontation. That China and the ROK will forever remain neighbors is more than diplomatic rhetoric; rather, it implies that the U.S. is welcome to leave East Asia. There have been cases in history where the United States left the peninsula in an exchange of interests with Japan. China’s development cannot and will not be restricted, and countries in the region should be vigilant about what strategy the U.S. will adopt and whether it will create frictions to disrupt the development process in East Asia.
Wang Sheng, Professor of the Department of International Politics of the School of Public Administration at Jilin University, noted that, crisis management of the Korean Peninsula should be an issue of high priority for both China and the ROK. This is especially germane in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as the ROK’s geopolitical environment is similar to that of Ukraine. Therefore, it is important to avoid geo-conflict from occurring in the Asia-Pacific region. The ROK’s moves to strengthen its US alliance and NATO ties, resume ROK-U.S. military exercises, and continue to deploy the THAAD system and other strategic weapons have dramatic consequences for the security of China, Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Thus, the ROK should think carefully about the possible outcomes of its security positioning. China has treated the ROK as a good friend and neighbour for the past 30 years, and will take the ROK as an important partner in the evolution of the 21st century. Currently, the momentum of cooperation between China and the ROK, on both economic and nuclear issues is weakening due to third-party factors. Accordingly, China-ROK relations are at a crossroads and the two sides should take the opportunity of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties to actively strengthen strategic communication. The situation on the Korean Peninsula heightens the risk of intervention by external forces; thus, the ROK should strengthen independent diplomacy to avoid undue influence by external forces before China-ROK relations are seriously damaged.
Chung Jae-hung, Research Fellow of the Department of Security Strategy Studies of the Sejong Institute, said that, the Yoon Seok-youl administration’s foreign policy toward China suggests that China and the ROK will usher in a new era of mutual respect. China and the ROK are facing new variations in the international order as a result of the spillover effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the intensification of strategic competition between China and the U.S. Both sides need to explore new models of cooperation in the 21st century around issues such as economic security, public health, climate change, weapons of mass destruction and nuclear non-proliferation. As such, both countries must actively manage issues and potential conflicts including economic security and the North Korea nuclear issue. It is necessary for China and the ROK to hold regular high-level strategic dialogues and promote the “2+2” dialogue on topics like “Diplomacy-Defense,” “Diplomacy-Economy,” and “Diplomacy-Technology.” In formulating its foreign policy toward China, the ROK needs a more objective understanding of changes to the international order. To avoid heading towards strategic competition or hostility, China and the ROK need to establish communication channels for crisis management and build more substantive cooperation.
Li Chunfu, Distinguished Research Fellow of the Institute of International Studies at Shandong University, remarked that, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the ROK 30 years ago, an imbalance has increasingly emerged in bilateral relations. While the two countries have seen close cooperation in economy, trade and society, there has also been a lack of substantive cooperation in military and security fields. In recent years, under the influence of US increased strategic containment of China, the zero-sum nature of China-ROK relations and ROK-U.S. relations has become increasingly prominent and evolving restrictive factors have emerged. The differences in security issues and philosophies between the two countries have been extended to the economic and cultural fields. If the differences in security, which profoundly restrict development in China-ROK relations, remain unsolved, the cooperation between the two countries in economy, humanities and other areas of strength will be influenced. As important neighbors and partners, China and the ROK should further strengthen friendly and cooperative relations in line with the current situation and the aspiration of peoples, and in the fundamental interests of both countries. The two countries should deepen substantive military and security cooperation, effectively strengthen strategic mutual trust, enhance consensus, deepen cooperation, and properly handle sensitive core issues affecting bilateral relations, and more importantly, avoid the influence of factors introduced by third parties such as the United States.
Seo Jeong-kyung, Research Professor at the Seoul National University Asia Center, suggested that, the ROK people’s positive feelings toward China are at an all-time low. This was due to political and security factors, such as the THAAD issue, the North Korea issue, and most importantly, U.S.-ROK relations. The ROK people want China to play a constructive role in resolving the North Korea issue, and if the ROK people see substantial results, their perception of China will improve accordingly. Going forward, China and the ROK should learn from past difficulties and build better bilateral relations, with particular emphasis on issues concerning North Korea. In terms of ROK-U.S. relations, many people believe that the ROK chooses to stand with the U.S. instead of China, but in reality, the ROK remains in a position to assist China in expanding its compressed strategic space. Furthermore, China should try to better understand the stances of other Asian countries to gain insights into the reasons why they are forced to choose sides as strategic competition between China and the United States intensifies.
Dong Xiangrong, Professor of the National Institute of International Strategy at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said that the new “Cold War mentality” is spreading across Northeast Asia. As such, the region may again have to pick sides between the “U.S.-Japan-ROK” bloc and the “China-Russia-DPRK” bloc. China and the ROK need to respect each other’s major security concerns and effectively manage risks to avoid a deterioration of the security environment. China and the ROK also need to build a consensus on peaceful development, elevate the diplomatic importance of China-ROK relations, increase the autonomy of bilateral relations, and mitigate the influence of third-party influence. The ROK also needs to accept and adapt to the fact of China’s rise, grasp the structural changes within international power dynamics, and seek mutual development with China, rather than aligning itself with external forces that seek to contain China.
Xing Liju, Professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said that, in recent years, negative opinions of China have increased in the ROK, and the group that holds such perceptions is getting younger. Young Koreans are the generation that have grown up with China-ROK relations, and will be the main driving force in leading ROK society and building China-ROK relations. It is urgent to improve young Koreans’ perceptions of China and prevent a possible “grey rhino” threat from taking place in China-ROK relations. China and the ROK should improve the media environment and provide a positive platform for youth exchanges. China should build culture that attracts Korean youth and reconstruct its public diplomacy strategy with the ROK in a way that is more appealing to young people. China can leverage new media and other communication platforms to promote the interaction among young people. Both sides should also establish sustainable and feasible medium-term and long-term goals in the field of people-to-people exchanges, expand two-way exchanges to positively contribute to the development of healthy and stable China-ROK friendly relations.
Wang Xiaoling, Associate Professor of National Institute of International Strategy at CASS, posited that, the China-ROK relations are profoundly affected by the changing geopolitical landscape. As such, China-ROK social cooperation should play a constructive role. For the peoples of China and the ROK, the basis for mutual respect and trust is found in four common interests: Firstly, at a time when security risks are rising under the changing international situation, the two societies should be aware of the importance of maintaining peace; Secondly, both sides must work to ensure a just international order through diversified and balanced cooperation, because respect can only be found in a diversified structure; Thirdly, as the national strength of both countries grows, they should emphasize the pursuit of mutual respect on the basis of confidence and self-respect; Fourthly, common hot issues deserve acute scrutiny by both sides. Furthermore, there are increasingly more social issues shared by the two societies, and a larger number of topics that mutually resonate, especially amongst the younger generation.
Wu Jingjing, Senior Fellow at Department for Asia-Pacific Studies of China Institute of International Studies, noted that, the ROK is increasingly able to play a key role as a world hub. For example, the U.S. is using its advantages to strengthen relations with NATO and Japan and the ROK, and the ROK’s choice could influence the international order. The ROK and other Asian countries, which are under pressure to take sides between China and the U.S., should play a constructive role in balancing, coordinating and stabilizing China-U.S. relations, safeguarding the hard-won peace, stability, prosperity and development of the Asia-Pacific, and preventing the world from falling into division and confrontation. China-ROK relations are, in large part, influenced by the U.S. and the DPRK. The nuclear issue, THAAD issue, and other concerns cannot be properly resolved by China and the ROK alone. However, China and the ROK should exclude external interference and avoid third-party factors. In a demonstration of hegemony, the U.S. is trying to achieve offshore balancing in East Asia by generating conflict to “rule” the region by dividing East Asian countries. Both China and the ROK cannot let US hegemonic activities dominate the region.
To conclude the seminar, Wu Hailong pointed out the many similarities among participants in their assessments of China-ROK relations: First, China-ROK relations have made enormous progress; Second, China-ROK relations face new difficulties and challenges due to the current international situation and various factors; Third, China and the ROK should properly deal with difficulties and challenges and continue to maintain and develop bilateral relations; Fourth, China and the ROK should increase exchanges, mutual understanding and trust. Wu Hailing also noted that participants expressed many different views on ROK-U.S. relations, ROK-NATO relations, and the ROK’s attitudes toward the Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, China and the ROK share common interests in many areas, and bilateral relations have seen stability and continuity over the past 30 years. Thus, China and the ROK must keep the general direction of bilateral relations on the right track, handle bilateral relations with caution, strengthen exchanges, increase trust and clear doubts, and adhere to mutual benefit and win-win positioning, so that the China-ROK relations over the next 30 years remain stable and far-reaching.