This year, People’s Republic of China and Republic of Korea celebrate 30 years since they have established diplomatic relations, on August 24, 1992. On the occasion, the Chinese head of state, Xi Jinping, and South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, exchanged official greetings, according to the media in both countries.
The Chinese President recalled that China and South Korea are neighboring countries with a common sea border and that the two countries “should be good neighbors, good friends and good partners”. At the same time, the Chinese leader underlined that the world is entering a new period caused by a complex intertwining of epochal changes and consequences brought about by the Covid-19 epidemic, context in which the two countries “can only defeat crises and tide over difficulties by embracing solidarity and cooperation”. Xi proposed a “new starting point” in the history of China-South Korea relations namely “to adapt to the trend of the times, eliminate interference, consolidate friendship and focus on cooperation [in order] to create a better future for bilateral relations, for the benefit of the two countries and their peoples”.
The South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed his warm wishes for the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China, and manifested the hope that “the anniversary activities will further promote exchanges and cooperation between the two countries, strengthening the friendship between their peoples”. At the same time, President Yoon manifested his “hope that both sides will build on the spirit of mutual respect to explore new directions of cooperation and promote the development of bilateral relations in a more mature and sounder manner.”
Certainly, both messages signal the People’s Republic of China – Republic of Korea relations have plenty of potential, as well as room for improvement.
In assessing the 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, one needs to understand that the influence exerted by China on the Korean peninsula is the result of a complex political, strategic and diplomatic situation through a historical outlook.
China’s role in the Korean Peninsula, predominant until 1894 and later neutralized by China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, became evident again with the intervention of the army of Chinese volunteers in the Korean War (1950-1953) alongside North Korea. From that moment, China has once again become one of the main players in the Korean question, establishing a bond of friendship and cooperation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) which, despite fluctuating periods, is bound to continue in the light of the likeness of ideology, proximity and historical relations between the two countries.
Firm on a political position that recognized only one Korea (DPRK), in the years following the Korean War, the Beijing government had no relationship with Seoul. A first essential turning point in relations between China and South Korea occurred towards the end of the 1970s, when indirect economic relations were established between the two countries via Hong Kong. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, however, the Beijing government, despite the growth in trade between China and South Korea, continued to support the principle of separation between economics and politics and did not initiate diplomatic relations with Seoul.
The Establishment of Diplomatic Relations: Political Challenges, Strategic Benefits and Economic Opportunities
Between 1990-1991, the constant development of business relations and the contacts between the Chinese International Chamber of Commerce and the Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency paved the way for a possible establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea.
It has also become clear that the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea would have meant the end of all diplomatic relations between Seoul and Taipei, in the light of the “One China principle”.Despite the excellent diplomatic relations between Seoul and Taipei, both Cold War bastions against the spread of communism in East Asia, Seoul has likely considered that its national security was no longer linked to the containment of communist forces in East Asia, but rather aimed at maintaining peace and stability in East Asia. In context, it became essential to have good relations with all the countries in the area. In August 1992, South Korean authorities confiscated the property of the so-called "Republic of China Embassy", transferring it to the People's Republic of China. All direct commercial flights between Seoul and Taipei were terminated. However, soon afterwards, in 1994, the two sides decided to open the "Korean Mission in Taipei" and the "Taipei Mission in Seoul", which signed an aviation agreement on September 1, 2004.
Furthermore, following Beijing’s re-accession into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China became a significant vector in the Korean Peninsula through its veto right and other prerogatives in the UNSC. As South Korea has joined the United Nations – only after China withdrew its objection to South Korean membership in the United Nations – in 1991, establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing must have seemed an auspicious foreign policy choice.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China remained – at the time – the only regional close friend of North Korea, an indispensable intermediary in the contacts between the Seoul and the Pyongyang government. In this regard, it might have been the case that establishing relations with China appeared as a foreign policy choice capable of bringing great benefits to Seoul for the cause of peace - and eventual reunification - of the Peninsula.
Finally, from an economic point of view, despite the importance of the economic links with Taipei, it was obvious that trading with Beijing presents clear advantages in terms of the volume of the balance of payments. One may assume that the economic dimension continues to play a highly significant role in the China-South Korea bilateral relation.
For Beijing, it is not unlikely that establishing diplomatic relations with Seoul carried a heavy political load, in the light of the “One Korea principle”, despite the clear economic benefits. According to the available testimonies, Beijing informed the DPRK leader Kim Il Sung in advance of the desire to establish diplomatic relations with the Seoul government, trying to persuade him of the inevitability of establishing diplomatic relations with all the states in the Korean Peninsula and of the fact that this could also have benefited DPRK. As a socialist country and a “de jure” ally of Pyongyang, the Beijing government would not have been fond of the DPRK leader publicly criticizing China for treason, as Kim Il Sung did to Moscow at the time of the Soviet Union-South Korea establishment of diplomatic relations in September 1990. Though the Pyongyang government did not criticize Beijing at the time, it threatened to withdraw from the Security Treaty signed between China and North Korea in 1961. The Treaty continues to bind the two nations and has been renewed several times since.
The Joint Communiqué on the normalization of relations between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Korea was signed in Beijing on August 24, 1992 by Qian Qichen and Lee Sang-ok, respectively Chinese and South Korean Foreign Ministers. Certainly, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries constituted a great success for both Seoul – seeking international recognition, and Beijing – seeking internationalization to accompany the economic “Open-up” reforms.
Conducting Bilateral Relations: Toward an Articulated Position on the Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
After establishing diplomatic relations, China and South Korea continued on the path of cooperation in multiple fields, including military exchanges (following the meeting of the Prime Ministers of the two countries, Li Peng and Yi Hong-gu, in May 1995). At the outbreak of the financial crisis in East Asia, the two governments agreed to strengthen cooperation between their respective research institutes to overcome further occurrences of this situation.
On August 25, 1997, celebrating the fifth anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between China and South Korea, China’s People's Daily highlighted, inter alia, the large number of high-level official visits between representatives of the two countries.
The Chinese government seemed to have gradually assumed an increasing role in matters concerning the situation of the Korean peninsula by participating, among other things, in a series of meetings held between 1997 and 1999 between North Korea, South Korea, the United States and China. However, these meetings did not lead to any immediate concrete results and that the Chinese efforts seemingly did not resolve the differences that emerged between North Korea on the one hand and South Korea and the United States on the other.
In fact, establishing diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea signaled an overall change in the Chinese policy, which transitioned from the “One Korea principle”, i.e. recognizing a DPRK as the single legitimate state in the Korean Peninsula, dictated by perhaps by ideological and strategic factors linked to the typical bipolar division of the Cold War period, to a policy of recognition of both DPRK and the Republic of Korea, born from a more pragmatic vision on behalf of Beijing.
One may assume that,currently, Beijing’s priority seems to be that of a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula free from foreign military presence, primarily the US.From this point of view, it is not unlikely that China perceives Korean reunification with a clear ambivalence: 1) a lengthy, well-crafted and mutually accepted reunification is certainly desired, yet 2) a swift reunification with unforeseeable consequences may generate certain reserve in Beijing.
1) The case of a lengthy, well-crafted and mutually accepted reunification:
- In the long run, reunification would help peace and stability on the peninsula and throughout Northeast Asia. This turns out to be fundamental shall one consider that, in the past, situations of instability in the Korean peninsula have always had negative repercussions on China, if not spillover effects. The examples of the the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) or the Korean War (1950-1953) are suggestive in this regard. Certainly, following a significant worsening of the DPRK economic situation, it is not unlikely that waves of DPRK immigration may affect China;
- The Korean reunification may lead to the withdrawal of the US military forces from South Korea. One may assume that, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Beijing sees the US military presence in Asia – and particularly in South Korea – as a negative factor for its own national security, given the geographical proximity between the two countries and the rather recent Indo-Pacific security concept advanced by Japan;
- For China, a united and probably stronger Korea could become a useful force to counter the influence of Japan in East Asia and hence build a new and differently balanced multipolar structure in the region;
- Finally, one may consider the reunification of the two Koreas would echo the Chinese desire to similarly achieve reunification with Taiwan.
2) The case of a swift reunification with unforeseeable political and economic consequences:
- If from a strategic point of view a stable and peaceful North Korea may represent an indispensable counterweight between China and the United States; at the same time, from an economic point of view, a prosperous South Korea is an irreplaceable partner. The reunification of the Korean peninsula could significantly reduce Beijing's influence in the neighboring peninsula;
- The hypothesis that a unified Korea could continue its alliance, especially military, with the United States, may not please Beijing. A US military presence in the vicinity of the Yalu River would mean that Chinese efforts to participate in the Korean War (indeed, Chairman Mao’s son has died fighting in the Korean War) and the subsequent efforts to support the Pyongyang government have paid little strategic consequences;
In the light of the ambivalence presented above, one may assume that, at least for the moment, the Beijing government seems to place the stability of the Korean peninsula as essential to the peace in Asia. Certainly, a stable, predictable and mutually accepted reunification of the Korean Peninsula remains the lofty goal of all the parties and actors involved.
China - South Korea Today: Looking into the State of Affairs of Tomorrow
One day after the new missile test conducted by Pyongyang, the 14th since the beginning of the year, Seoul announced its entry into the NATO Cybersecurity Cooperation Center, as the first Asian country to join the North Atlantic Alliance structure dedicated to cybersecurity. Certainly, the timing of the announcement has inevitably generated controversy and additional tension with China. According to Hu Xijin, former editor of the Chinese’s state-run daily Global Times: "If South Korea chooses a path that turns it hostile towards its neighbors, the end of that path could be Ukraine."
While the current President Yoon Suk-yeol has openly stated his wish to turn South Korea into a “global pivotal state” (considered by analysts as Yoon’s foreign policy strategy to work together with allies and partners to ensure that South Korea becomes a more relevant global actor),while former President Moon Jae-in has always sought a complex balance between Beijing and Washington. Provided President Moon's goal was to restart dialogue with Kim Jong-un, an impossible feat without the intercession of President Xi Jinping, such a stance becomes obvious.
The incumbent President, however, seems to advocate a tougher line towards the other half of the peninsula. During the election campaign, Yoon also foreshadowed the possibility of a preemptive strike, a warning echoed by the leader of Pyongyang during the recent military parade for the 90th anniversary of the North Korean army.
Similarly, President Yoon did not rule out asking for new units of the American THAAD missile defense system, whose acquisition by Seoul in 2017 has sparked a deep diplomatic crisis with Beijing with repercussions to nowadays. According to China's Foreign Ministry, South Korea has agreed – during its former Moon administration – to limit the operations of the THAAD battery and adhere to the "Three No's", i.e. to not deploy more THAAD units, not to form a missile defense network with the United States, and to not formally join a three-way military alliance with the US and Japan.
However, at the time, thinking of Seoul joining the Quad is no longer science fiction. On one hand, South Korea has kept distance from the quadrilateral platform of which the USA, Japan, India and Australia are part, seen by Beijing as an attempt to build an Asian NATO. The programmed summits during current General Assembly’s session of President Yoon Suk Yeol with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumino Kishida will be very important, including from this point of view. On the other hand, the entry into the Atlantic Alliance's Cybersecurity Cooperation Center suggests that this distance could soon be as well shortened. In recent years, the relatively different approaches displayed by South Korea and Japan, the former being much more assertive towards China, was clearly evident. As President Yoon has declared to improve the at times effervescent relations with Tokyo, regarded by the South Korean President as the country “Achilles’ heel”, closer relations between Republic of Korea and Japan may turn to a new approach after the above mentioned summit, which might worry Beijing.
Clearly, 30 years after first establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, South Korean leadership is well aware of what it entails to hold an excessively harsh attitude towards China. In this regard, it appears that Seoul finds itself squeezed between two leading world powers. Washington undoubtedly remains an essential ally for a country that is formally at war with its northern counterpart. However, to get to Pyongyang, any South Korean President must necessarily cross the streets of Beijing.
In this regard, President Yoon will need to confront with the profound and inherent contradictions of the South Korean foreign policy and, likely, in the not-unlikely case of intensification of the rivalry between the two largest economies in the world, will have the hard task of operating pragmatic choices which could redefine South Korea's relations with China as well as the country’s position in the new international arena.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.