New Leaders Forum

Sino-South Korea Ties Warming?

Differing regional security perceptions have led to a tricky period in South Korea-China relations.

China and South Korea marked 19 years of diplomatic relations last week, as the two countries emerge from what has been a rocky period for bilateral ties.

Since upgrading their relationship to a ‘strategic cooperative partnership’ in 2008, the two countries have clashed over regional priorities, including China’s North Korea policy and South Korea’s alliance with the United States. The problem is that these disagreements risk distracting attention from the needs of the China-South Korea relationship.
The first China-South Korea ‘strategic defence dialogue,’ held last July, was a necessary step toward  the objectives identified in 2008, namely the strengthening of high-level strategic coordination mechanisms. But working against this progress has been a sharp rise in South Korean concerns over China’s military build-up. China’s testing of its first aircraft carrier last month raised new suspicions about Chinese naval and territorial ambitions. At the same time, controversy has mounted over the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island that began in January this year, which protestors see as satisfying the needs of a US regional defence system against China rather than addressing South Korea’s security needs over North Korea. These reactions reflect South Korean sensitivity toward China’s growing military capacities as the world’s second-biggest economy, as well as the implications this build-up has for the regional power structure. 

Sino-South Korean economic ties remain the strongest aspect of the relationship. Since China became South Korea’s biggest trade partner, just a decade after the normalization of ties, bilateral trade has been increasing at an average annual rate of 22 percent. In the first half of 2011, China accounted for 22 percent of South Korea’s total foreign trade, compared with a record low 9 percent for the United States. But China’s economic advances have also meant increased competition in South Korea’s key export sectors, such as shipbuilding and automobiles. And analysts argue that the more China catches up with South Korea economically, the more difficult the prospects are for a free trade agreement. 
Despite rapid increases in people-to-people exchanges, recent strains in political and security relations have also revived South Korean debate on issues such as the history of Goguryeo – an ancient kingdom seen by China as once part of a greater China, but by South Korea as an independent Korean kingdom. A row over the issue in 2004 took South Korean public perceptions of China to historic lows that year. China’s rising economic leverage and perceived expansion in military capabilities, meanwhile, will likely amplify the debate over sensitive history questions and territorial claims, North Korea, Korean unification, and relations with the United States.
But these challenges also highlight the areas in which China and South Korea can and should work constructively together for regional stability, such as on North Korea’s regional and global integration, military exchanges and confidence-building, and regional economic and financial cooperation.
Ultimately, a robust China-South Korea strategic partnership is good not only for these two countries, but also conducive to addressing Northeast Asia’s key regional issues as well.
See-Won Byun is a non-resident Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.