China, South Korea to enhance mutual trust, avoid sensitive issues like THAAD as countries celebrate 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties
Countries should face up to divergences, increase high-level exchanges
Published: Aug 23, 2022 08:06 PM Updated: Aug 24, 2022 12:02 PM
China South Korea File photo:CGTN

China South Korea File photo:CGTN


Amid a high celebratory atmosphere for the 30th anniversary of the establishment of South Korea-China diplomatic ties on Wednesday, the latest statistics from the South Korean trade body show that the country's exports to China surged over 160 times over the past three decades, reflecting South Korea's unavoidably close economic ties with China.

Such close business interaction is just a microcosm of the successful bilateral ties, as the two sides share consensus on many other global affairs. Experts said this should prevent issues like the THAAD deployment from affecting future ties and this also highlights the need to further enhance mutual trust in both the political and economic perspectives. 

South Korea's exports to China have increased more than 160 times since they set up diplomatic ties 30 years ago, much higher than the growth rate of Seoul's overall overseas shipments, Yonhap News reported on Tuesday, citing data from the Korea International Trade Association. China was South Korea's 15th-largest export destination in 1991 - one year before the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties - with the US taking the top spot, followed by Japan, the Hong Kong region, Germany and Singapore, the report said. But Beijing outpaced Washington and clinched the top spot in 2003, retaining the leading status for the past 20 years. 

One distinctive feature of South Korea-China relations has been the spectacular economic cooperation between the two countries. It served both countries' interests, Lee Seong-Hyon, a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

Such rapid growth in South Korea-China economic relations is part of the overall development of the bilateral relations. Development of bilateral ties is also a history of dissolution of barriers, shifting from hostility and reaching a strategic consensus that has been helping the two countries achieve new levels over the past 30 years, some experts said. 

Xing Haiming, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, said on Monday at an event held in Seoul marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties that the two countries need to respect each other's core interests and matters of significant concern, and develop China-South Korea relations in a more mature, independent and stable manner, according to the Chinese Embassy in South Korea. 

Some Chinese experts on Korean Peninsula affairs have a deeper view on China-South Korea ties. 

The two countries need to face up to their ideological divergences and conduct more high-level visits and exchanges to promote political mutual trust. China needs to positively evaluate the development achievements of South Korea as one of the major developed countries, while South Korea needs to accept and adapt to China's development, Dong Xiangrong, a researcher at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an article published on August 17. 

South Korea should accurately grasp the structural changes in the international landscape and seek to take advantage of the development opportunities presented by China's development, rather than siding with forces trying to curb China's rise, Dong noted. 

However, both South Korean and Chinese experts share concerns over hidden dangers that could affect bilateral relations, especially when the US is ramping up its efforts to pressure the South Korean government and some pro-US political forces in South Korea are leaning toward Washington, which could cast a shadow over the future of South Korea-China ties. 

Some US media outlets and think tanks also raised the question of whether South Korea could find a way out in the US-China rivalry. Voice of America said in a report in July that with an eye on China, South Korea is shifting its focus on the US, mentioning Seoul's first participation at a NATO summit after it joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework proposed by US President Joe Biden in May, which is widely considered as another ideologically driven tool in containing China. 

Seoul has been assiduous in balancing between China and the US. For example, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said recently that it would be difficult to discuss the future of the Indo-Pacific without China, and it has distanced itself from the US-led "Chip 4" by calling it a "semiconductor supply chain consultative body," according to media reports. 

Most recently, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's "unfortunate" absence from a meeting with visiting US house speaker Nancy Pelosi was seen by Chinese experts as a way to avoid embarrassment, as Pelosi's recent provocative visit to the island of Taiwan had irritated China and caused tensions in the region

Still, the most sensitive and important issue in the South Korea-China ties is the reemergence of the THAAD issue. Some Chinese experts believe that if the two countries head toward a better future, issues like the THAAD deployment have to be avoided. 

"The THAAD deployment is an important matter triggering misunderstanding between the two countries, causing painful memories and directly affecting not only diplomatic ties but also economic cooperation," Lü Chao, an expert on the Korean Peninsula issue at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

Although it was South Korean politicians that had brought up the idea of normalizing the operation of the military base that hosts THAAD, clearly, there are US factors behind of such reemergence, aiming to sow discord between South Korea and China, Lü said. 

"One positive sign is that during the recent meeting between [the two countries'] foreign ministers, the two countries agreed not to let the THAAD issue derail bilateral issues. Setting such a boundary reveals that both sides care deeply about the bilateral ties," Lee said. 

Besides close economic interaction, China and South Korea also share consensus on the Korean Peninsula issue, offering more opportunities for cooperation, some experts said, who also called to manage the divergences on ideological and cultural aspects well, preventing them from affecting overall relations. 

South Korea is a "litmus test" for China's soft power, because as a neighbor to China, South Korea shares history, the Confucian culture, and people-to-people exchanges for thousands of years, the South Korean expert noted. "As such, Koreans have natural cultural affinity to China and feel close to China. The world will also watch carefully how South Koreans feel about China as a litmus test for China's soft power," he said. 

Over the past few years, there have been some cultural spats between the two countries, for example, some Chinese and South Korean netizens were involved in a heated online debate over the origins of the pickled vegetable dish kimchi in 2021. 

"It's unnecessary to let online disputes affect overall national sentiment. On the cultural side, the two sides could attribute those questions to academic discussions in order to enhance mutual understanding," Lü said.