China congratulates Yoon Suk-yeol on election as S.Korean president, hopes for rationality in ties
Preserving Asian ties preferred over following US: analysts
Published: Mar 10, 2022 07:44 PM
South Korea's new president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol (center), of the main opposition People Power Party, gestures to his supporters as he is congratulated outside the party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, on March 10, 2022. Photo: VCG

South Korea's new president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol (center), of the main opposition People Power Party, gestures to his supporters as he is congratulated outside the party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, on March 10, 2022. Photo: VCG

Five hours after South Korea's presidential election ended with conservative People Power Party (PPP) candidate Yoon Suk-yeol elected as the country's next president on Thursday, the US government requested to talk to Yoon, a move that shows its eagerness to further draw South Korea into its small circle. Analysts noted that the alliance of the US, Japan and South Korea may become the key for the new government on foreign policy, but mature politicians should not rashly choose sides as it will undermine diplomatic flexibility, and stable relations with China are a "necessary choice" which fits South Korea's and the region's interests. 

With all the votes counted, Yoon had 48.56 percent and Lee Jae-myung of the liberal Democratic Party (DP) took 47.83 percent, according to the National Election Commission, Yonhap News reported. The 0.73 percentage-point gap makes this year's election the closest ever.

China congratulated Yoon on his election as the new president, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily press briefing on Thursday, noting that the two countries are neighbors that cannot be moved away and important cooperative partners that cannot be separated from each other. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea, and China is willing to take the opportunity to further promote bilateral relations to benefit the two peoples, Zhao said. 

Yoon, 61, is a former prosecutor general and South Korean media noted that his election "could have a profound impact on the direction" the country will take on foreign policy as he takes a hard line on national security and has pledged to deploy additional units of the US THAAD anti-missile system. Such a deployment had been opposed by the Chinese government over concerns of its own security and had led to outrage toward South Korea among the Chinese. 

In a speech after winning the election on Thursday, Yoon mentioned China and said that his administration will develop relations under mutual respect. 

Yoon's policies toward China will be surely different from that of outgoing President Moon Jae-in as he represents the interests of conservatives. Yet one thing that has the ultimate say on South Korea's China policy is its own national interests. Warm China-South Korean ties will do good to Asia's fourth biggest economy; and sour ties will only be detrimental to the country, Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times.

Despite what Yoon said during the campaign, or what he personally believes in, once president, Yoon is going to make a decision that is good for his country, Yang said, noting that in the past three decades, South Korea has witnessed power shifts between conservatives and progressives, and small ups and downs in its relations with China. But the ties are stable and heading toward relatively a good direction. 

The economic exchanges between China and South Korea have boomed for years. China is South Korea's largest trading partner. Bilateral trade hit about 2.34 trillion yuan, up 18.4 percent year-on-year, Chinese customs data showed. Analysts predicted that the data is expected to hit a record high in the new year. 

A test

But challenges lie in the rising nationalism and populism in South Korea which leads to negative sentiment toward China, regional geopolitics as well as reliance on the US for security. With the US cajoling its allies into joining a united front in bashing China, Yoon will be tested on whether he will keep his country's relations with China free from the influence of its alliance with the US, analysts said. 

The rising populism in South Korea is partly rooted in their fear of a peaceful rise of China. A challenge for the new president is whether to answer the populism by pushing the country's policy toward the side of irrationality, or rein them in with rational policies. This is a test for the new president-elect, Yang said.  

Lü Chao, an expert on the Korean Peninsula issue at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that he did not see reason for China-South Korea relations to have a turning point. The overall trend is generally developing in a direction of mutual benefits, in politics, economic cooperation or on the Korean Peninsula issue. 

Judging from remarks made by Yoon, a transition period for the bilateral ties would follow, during which we will see whether his words during the presidential election will come true. 

The US has always influenced China-South Korea relations. The outgoing Moon administration has tried to balance its relations between China and the US.

The US sees Yoon's victory as a unique opportunity to further cement its alliance with South Korea and Japan and to its small circle, especially the QUAD, to compete with China, which may affect the stability of the region, analysts said. 

Five hours after Yoon gave his victory speech, Yoon spoke on the phone with US President Joe Biden at the request of the US, Yonhap cited officials of the PPP as saying. They noted that Yoon had planned to talk with Biden on Friday, while the latter requested a call ahead of schedule. 

The White House said in a release that Biden congratulated Yoon and they "affirmed the strength" of the US-South Korea alliance. Soon after the US, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida congratulated Yoon and said he hoped to work closely with him to rebuild healthier ties with its neighbor. 

"Biden's phone conversation with Yoon is within expectations," said Lü, noting that even during the election campaign, the US government and media expressed support to the opposition party candidate and hoped his winning may help usher in a better period for US-South Korea relations. 

Such a move showcased the eagerness of the Biden government to take this moment to promote its strategy in using the alliance with Japan and South Korea to contain China. This plan did not go well due to bumpy relations between South Korea and Japan, Lü told the Global Times. 

During the election campaign, Yoon mentioned several times about rebuilding and strengthening the alliance with the US. But what actions Yoon will take remain to be seen, analysts said. 

A security alliance with the US cannot guarantee South Korea's security. A country must seek a balance and deal with relationships with all relevant countries to achieve a sustainable and stable national security. What is unveiling in Ukraine is a good example, Yang told the Global Times. 

Yang noted that South Korea may face an important strategic choice in the next five years - facing increasing pressure from the US to choose between it and China and what the policymakers in South Korea will do when the US determines to abduct it into its anti-China fleet. Will South Korea become the bridgehead of the US or make independent defense and diplomatic policies? 

Lü noted believing that South Korea will only lean toward the US and join its anti-China small circle is wishful thinking for the US. For Yoon, maintaining social stability and economic development is much more important. And the president-elect will not risk losing big for small problems. 

Responding to the deployment of THAAD which Yoon mentioned during the campaign, Lü pointed out that this is more like an eye-catching slogan for the election campaign. But once he's faced with reality, such a move may receive resistance from the South Korean people and the PPP. 

Choosing between China and the US does not fit the interests of South Korea and will limit its flexibility in dealing with regional issues. Judging from his remarks during the campaign, Yoon may take a hardline stance toward North Korea amid deteriorating ties between North and South Korea, Yang Danzhi, an expert on Asia-pacific from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. 

Yang noted that some conservative forces in South Korea may be happy to see poor relations with the North. But a tense peninsula situation is not what the people want to see and neither does it fit South Korea's interests.