China 'prepared for' S.Korea power shift
South Korea should play a 'bridge' not 'frontline' between great powers
Published: Mar 08, 2022 10:30 PM
Workers prepare a polling station a day before South Korea's general election, in Suwon on March 8, 2022. Photo: IC

Workers prepare a polling station a day before South Korea's general election, in Suwon on March 8, 2022. Photo: IC

South Korea's presidential election is expected to conclude on Wednesday, and the result could significantly impact China-South Korea ties in the coming years, for which China will remain prepared. 

The election this year shows that the opinions of generation Z, or the youth, in South Korea could greatly impact future policymaking in the country, including in foreign affairs. The economic problems in the country and the education backgrounds and media coverage that deeply affect the new generations' thoughts would make a large part of the population more conservative, said analysts.

This kind of change will add great uncertainty to the future of the Korean Peninsula and China-South Korea ties, as the new generation of the country has less desire for reunification and are more hostile and nationalistic in handling ties with China. Therefore, the country would find it hard to keep a balance between China and the US, but would likely serve Washington's strategy in containing China, experts said, noting that this is a challenge that China and South Korea would face.

South Korea's ruling party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and his main opposition rival Yoon Suk-yeol were set to wrap up their hard-fought campaigns with final rallies in Seoul on the eve of the election Tuesday as both sides claimed they would ultimately emerge victorious, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

On Tuesday, Lee started the day with a news conference, pledging to send special envoys to the US, China, Japan and North Korea as soon as he is elected to help bring lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula, according to Yonhap.

The two candidates hold different stances on ties with North Korea, China, the US and Japan. Lee, as the candidate of the liberal force, said he has similar policies with the Moon Jae-in administration to be more balanced between China and the US, while Yoon, the conservative candidate, would put the US-South alliance as the core of its diplomacy, according to media reports. 

The South Korean presidential election this year was greatly affected by "China factors" due to the increasingly intertwined relations and the negative sentiments on both sides due to some incidents in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and the impact from the US to pressure South Korea to join its major power competition strategy to contain China. Both candidates have made some hostile expressions to China during the election campaign.  

Lü Chao, an expert on the Korean Peninsula issue at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Tuesday that "although the campaign rhetoric can't fully represent policy, those expressions will bring a negative impact to China-South Korea ties and the Chinese people will surely be annoyed. Hyping 'China factors' to serve elections and to please the voters is irresponsible."

Wang Junsheng, a research fellow of East Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Tuesday that the negative sentiment against China among South Korean youth was caused by multiple reasons.

"Due to the anti-China propaganda warfare launched by the US since the Donald Trump era, China's image has been demonized in many countries allied with the US. Given the bad economic situation in South Korea, the youth are suffering from unemployment and low-income, for which they vent their frustrations on China," Wang said.

China's living standards and economic performance have surpassed many countries and regions, and this has caused a similar impact which makes the youth in these regions, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, blame China for their own problems, experts noted, adding that the negative sentiment toward South Korea is also rising in China because nationalist voices in South Korea have also angered many Chinese. 

Wang said it's very certain that China-South Korea relations will face challenges no matter who finally wins, and China should not hold any illusion to expect bilateral ties will see no negative impact.

Whoever wins, China has no intention to change its policy toward South Korea, and if any negative impact occurs, it would be initiated by the new South Korean administration, experts noted.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference on Monday amid the "two sessions" that China and South Korea are not rivals, but partners with intertwined interests, complementary advantages and great potential.

The two countries are friendly neighbors with deep historical roots, Wang Yi said. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-South Korea diplomatic relations, and their ties have withstood the test of various changes and achieved comprehensive and rapid development, Wang noted. 

Lü said, "After the election, there is bound to be a 'running-in period' for the two sides to adjust and find a new way to deal with each other, and during this period the key to bilateral ties is sufficient communication, particularly in terms of political communication."

Wang Junsheng said that South Korean politicians and the people, especially the youth, need to understand that their country should not choose sides between alliance with the US and ties   with China, because these two are both important to them, and South Korea can't use one of them to replace another. 

South Koreans can't let ideology hijack their national interests and diplomacy. "This is a well-intended suggestion from a friend," said Wang Junsheng.

China-US ties are much more intense than the period of the THAAD crisis, and if South Korea decides to serve US strategy to seriously harm China's national security in the future, the price that Seoul would pay will be much higher than the damage they suffered after the THAAD crisis, Chinese experts warned.

Zhan Debin, director and professor at the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies of the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, said "If the leaders of China and South Korea realize such exchanges as soon as possible and confirm the policy ideas of both sides, it may play a greater role in preventing the emergence of uncertainties and big changes."

South Korea has geographical advantages as a "bridge" between China, North Korea and the Western world. But if it totally abandons neutrality to serve the US strategy to harm China, it would become "the frontline" of the great power competition, Zhan noted.

"We don't need to be too pessimistic over China-South Korea ties, because in the economy and trade, as well as issues related to North Korea, both sides still have great common ground for cooperation. China is an irreplaceable partner of South Korea," Wang Junsheng said.