Can Sino-South Korean ties evolve in post-THAAD era?

By Wang Sheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/19 20:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

After summit-level talks, China and South Korea have come close to a consensus on the fraught Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang met South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the APEC meeting in Vietnam and the ASEAN summit in Manila respectively earlier this month.

The year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea, and the countries expressed the desire to let bilateral ties develop, ushering in a favorable turn and a new beginning in the post-THAAD era.

Friendly exchanges and win-win cooperation have always underpinned China-South Korea relations since they established diplomatic ties in 1992, which have led to extraordinary achievements, bringing benefits to people of both countries.

However, South Korea's deployment of the US missile interception system affected high-level and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation, resulting in certain damage to bilateral ties, especially leading to a "strategic trust deficit." The deployment led to the countries slashing investment in each other's economies and a plunge in the number of Chinese visiting South Korea.

South Korea forecast that the loss to the country could reach $12 billion, cutting economic growth this year by 0.4 percent.

Since Moon took office in May, he has been devoted to improving China-South Korea relations. He immediately sent a delegation to attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, appointed his most trusted person as ambassador to China and voiced support for Xi's proposal of building a community with shared future for mankind put forward at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. These positive signals to mend ties with China laid the foundation for high-level communications.

On October 30, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced that Seoul will not participate in the US-led missile defense networks, is not considering additional THAAD deployment and military cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo will not extend to a tripartite military alliance. On this basis, Beijing and Seoul communicated about the Korean Peninsula issue through diplomatic means. Knowing China's stance over the issue, South Korea made it clear that the current THAAD system would not jeopardize Beijing's security interests.

China reiterated its opposition to the deployment in order to safeguard its national security. In the meantime, Beijing has taken note of South Korea's stance, hoping Seoul will properly handle relevant issues. The two agreed to communicate about China's concerns over the missile defense system through military channels. This is a pragmatic and flexible diplomatic response China made considering its overall interest and each other's concerns, which is also in line with the common interest of both sides. Handing over the THAAD issue to the military channel marks a new starting point for China-South Korea relations in the post-THAAD era.

South Korea soon fulfilled its commitments to China made by its foreign minister. Earlier this month, the US military reportedly stationed three aircraft carriers off the eastern coast of the peninsula to carry out joint military drills with Japan and South Korea, but the drills fizzled out due to South Korea's refusal, according to South Korean media.

Furthermore, not only did South Korea deny its alliance with Japan, refusing to carry out military drills with its neighbor, but also disagreed on the Indo-Pacific strategy initiated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This indicates South Korea is determined to keep its commitment, which dispelled China's strategic doubts and became a turning point for continuing thaw of ties.

While South Korea is optimistic about the increasingly warming bilateral ties, China is cautiously optimistic. The damaged strategic mutual trust between the two sides must be repaired over time. Although both sides have common interests in the denuclearization of the peninsula, regional economic cooperation, etc, China still emphasizes that they respect each other's core interests and major concerns, and attempts at a military settlement of the THAAD issue do not mean the dispute is over. China is watching closely how South Korea fulfills its commitments.

Ties in the post-THAAD era should emphasize fulfilling commitments and regaining trust. This is the only way China and South Korea can look forward to better cooperation.

The author is a professor on international politics at the College of Public Administration, Jilin University.


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