It is a Chinese diplomatic tradition to celebrate the anniversaries of important events in its relations with foreign nations. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and South Korea. Instead of high-level visits or grand ceremonies, however, the anniversary is marred by unprecedented confrontation between the two countries.
From Beijing’s point of view, the dramatic downturn in bilateral relations resulted from President Park Geun-hye’s decision in July 2016 to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system on South Korean soil. While Seoul justified its decision by citing increasing nuclear threats from Pyongyang, Beijing is adamantly opposed to the deployment on the ground that it “causes grave damage to the strategic and security interests of neighboring countries such as China and Russia, as well as upsets strategic balance in the region.”
Then news broke that the South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group had agreed to a land swap on February 28 which would allow THAAD to be deployed on a piece of land owned by the multinational company. Outraged by such a move, some Chinese government-affiliated media called for a nationwide boycott of Lotte, which has extensive investments in China. A Chinese major general was so upset by the land deal that he published an op-ed piece in the Global Times, offering ten countermeasures against Seoul, one of which is to launch “surgical attacks” on the site of THAAD.
Yet less than two years ago, many Chinese officials and pundits were celebrating the beginning of a “brand new honeymoon” in China-South Korea relations, when Park attended a military parade on the Tiananmen Square on September 3, 2015 — the only leader of a U.S. ally to do so. The parade was staged in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.
Among the 23 heads of state and government who attended the parade, according to one news source, Park was the only one who had lunch with Chinese President Xi Jinping after a meeting between the two — and the meeting was extended from 20 to 30 minutes. A lunch is usually reserved for leaders of such countries as Russia and America, some Chinese analysts claimed, suggesting that Park’s Chinese host gave her an exceptional reception.
On the day of the parade, Xi was flanked by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the right and Park on the left as they walked up the stairs leading up to the tower atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace. When reviewing the troops marching below, Park stood to the right of Putin, who was next to Xi. To the left of Xi were Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both former presidents of China. The underlying message of all the symbolism was unmistakable: Beijing-Seoul relations were at a historical high.
The brand new honeymoon between China and South Korea — if there ever was one at all — turned out to be short-lived. Why does Beijing seem willing and ready to sacrifice its relationship with Seoul in order to prevent the development of THAAD?
Since 1949, Beijing has consistently perceived the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula as a grave threat to its national security. That’s why nearly a million Chinese soldiers crossed the Yalu River in 1950 to fight against U.S. forces. With respect to THAAD, many Chinese view it as “a key step for the United States to build an Asian version NATO, and an important move for the U.S. to build an anti-missile system in the western Pacific region.” Besides, some analysts claim its deployment could shift the strategic balance slightly in favor of Washington by giving it better early warning and tracking of Chinese ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). Thus China seems well justified in its opposition to the missile defense system.
Instead of having a head-on confrontation with Washington, however, Beijing is venting its wrath on Seoul. For many analysts, Beijing is playing the game of killing a chicken (South Korea) to scare a monkey (the United States). But does the chicken deserve killing? What are the consequences of killing the chicken? Can killing the chicken actually scare the monkey?
It took 25 years for China-South Korea relations to become what they are now: $300 billion worth of bilateral trade plus cross-border flow of people in the millions. A total reversal of such a relationship — even if temporarily — will cause immeasurable damage to both countries, though Seoul will probably assume a much bigger share of that damage than Beijing. Moreover, such a reversal will almost certainly push South Korea into a closer relationship with the United States and Japan, a scenario that neither Beijing nor Seoul should find appealing. After all, Park’s decision to attend the military parade in 2015 was widely viewed as a clear indication of “her determination to forge a closer relationship with Beijing while distancing Seoul from Washington and Tokyo.”
Finally, Beijing’s harsh stance toward Seoul will in all likelihood not only play into the hands of those in Washington who have been hyping about the China threat, but also send shivers across Southeast Asia where anxieties about a powerful China — which are deep-rooted due to historical memories — have been on the rise due to renewed tensions in the South China Sea. It is not unlikely that many years of efforts to cultivate “good neighborly relations and friendly cooperation” with China’s neighbors, to improve its soft power, and to convince the world of a peacefully rising China will quickly come to naught.
Nearly 200,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in a war that was fought on behalf of North Korea, yet Chinese sacrifices and friendliness apparently have been reciprocated by ingratitude and resentment. With Beijing and Seoul (and potentially Washington) embroiled in a diplomatic standoff, Pyongyang appears to be the biggest winner again. This might be the biggest irony of Chinese foreign policy. History is repeating itself, and it is time to ask why.