Epidemic response may help boost Beijing-Seoul ties

By Zhao Lixin Source:Global Times Published: 2020/2/20 13:28:40

Photo taken on Jan. 29, 2020 shows masks donated by South Korean city of Cheonan to Weihai City in east China's Shandong Province, at Incheon International Airport, South Korea. (NEWSIS/Handout via Xinhua)

With 1.4 billion Chinese people jointly combating the novel coronavirus, China has won approval and praise from the international community. The sudden and widespread outbreak, however, had meant medical and protective materials are in short supply. As the number of people infected continues to rise, and healthy citizens take measures to protect themselves, the social atmosphere has become tense and heavy. Many people have realized that fighting the epidemic will not be easy and China's relations with neighboring countries may be affected. 

At this critical juncture, South Korea, a close neighbor of China, has extended its hand even though it also faces a growing threat from the epidemic and has no clear preventive mechanism. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on February 7 that South Korea stands ready to continue to actively support China in its fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic. At that time, anxieties over the virus were brewing in South Korea. By late January, sales of masks and anti-cold medicine began to peak, as reports about the epidemic in China reached the country. There were calls for Moon to ban Chinese from travelling to South Korea. Some critics believed that the government was risking the health of its people by boosting ties with China.

The Blue House adopted a cautious but flexible strategy to cope with foreign relations. It chartered flights to bring back South Korean nationals and their relatives in China and temporarily banned non-citizens who had visited China's Hubei Province from entering South Korea. 

In late January, it was reported that the South Korean government was sending $5 million worth of emergency humanitarian aid to China to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. 

South Korean companies including Samsung, Hyundai and SK have donated money and materials worth about 90 million yuan ($12.8 million) to China. Education authorities in South Korea also emphasized that Chinese students should not be discriminated against.

South Korea's humanitarian diplomacy has brought people from both countries closer, helping boost ties after the countries became somewhat estranged over the THAAD missile dispute.  

Seoul is clear that the core of its ties with Beijing is related to trade and structural vulnerability remains in political and security cooperation. China is South Korea's largest trade partner, while South Korea is China's third largest trade partner. The countries' economic potential won't be brought into full play without fixing the vulnerable parts.

It is expected that after China effectively brings its domestic situation under control, South Korea will carry out major measures to boost domestic demand to lift its economy. If Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his South Korea trip this year, bilateral political and economic relations will see a big step forward. 

By positively coping with the epidemic, South Korea has not only shown itself as a country that is friendly to its neighbors, but it has also created favorable conditions for improving relations with China. An ideal scenario will see it can strike a balance between "relying on the US for security and depending on China for its economy."

Moreover, improvement of China-South Korea ties will have an effect on North Korea, and create a positive impact on deadlocked North-South relations and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Against the backdrop of China-US competition, cooperation between neighbors is key for China to meet its first centenary goal in 2020. The most urgent task is to contain the epidemic and bring all work back to normal. At this sensitive time, South Korea can offer support and assistance, and the Chinese government and people will deepen their understanding and trust of South Korea.

After the THAAD dispute, China and South Korea have been seeking ways to return bilateral ties to what they once were. Both have realized that in the foreseeable future, there is no strategic conflict between the two. The stability of the Korean Peninsula, denuclearization and regional security are South Korea's biggest strategic interests and are also the main pillar of China's Northeast Asia policy. 

The author is professor and director of the School of International Politics, Institute of Politics and Public Management, Yanbian University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

blog comments powered by Disqus