Long before South Korea elected President Yoon Suk-yeol of the People’s Power Party to succeed incumbent Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, the country shed its dilemma about keeping equal distance with the United States and its Asian neighbor China and is gradually inching towards Washington, not Beijing.
Aware that the South Korean stand disturbs the projection of its aura in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific, China would now have to work a miracle to build relations with the new President.
President-elect Yoon’s inexperience in foreign policy means he will have to depend on foreign policy experts in the bureaucracy and the field of politics to navigate his way through. Yoon is said to prefer a US-South Korea bilateral much to China’s chagrin. According to analysts in the know of things, he also wants a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
South Korea expert Andrew Yeo writing in Brookings, says: “Most notably, we should expect to see South Korea more actively engaging the US and other Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries (Australia, India, and Japan) in the Indo-Pacific on issues including maritime security, cybersecurity, climate change, and COVID-19 vaccine distribution, even if formal Quad membership remains less likely. Under Yoon, South Korea will also likely support the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, even as Seoul pursues membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
He feels the new President is unlikely to change his country’s attitude towards China. “Seoul has thus far shied away from informal coalitions to avoid the optics of hopping onto an anti-China bandwagon. However, backed by domestic anti-China sentiment, the new government will be less deferential to China and more vocal on issues pertaining to human rights and freedom of expression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.”
Why is South Korea irritated by China? Their ties deteriorated less than five years ago. The erosion of trust began after the former installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) US missile defense system. It was aimed at countering North Korean threats, but China protested on the ground that the system’s radar could see “deep into China.”
China retaliated with its economic might. The Voice of America reported: “China waged a painful campaign of economic retaliation. Chinese tour groups halted trips to South Korea. Stores in China belonging to Lotte, the South Korean conglomerate that provided the land for the THAAD system, were shut down after they failed to receive regulatory approval. South Korea’s K-pop musicians, wildly popular among Chinese, had their tours canceled and have since been unable to hold concerts in mainland China.”
As a result, South Korea lost billions of dollars in trade and business. Subsequently, both countries ended up in another controversy over a popular South Korean side dish, kimchi. It began when Swedish global industry regulator ISO “posted new standards for the production of paocai, a Chinese dish made of fermented vegetables .” A Chinese state media outlet boasted that paocai also included kimchi. Though both dishes are distinct and different, the South Koreans found the boast offensive. They saw the boast as an example of China’s “wolf warriors” – the tribe of young Chinese bureaucrats who are not afraid of carrying on offensive propaganda to promote the Chinese line of thought.
A Pew Research Center poll revealed that whereas in 2015, only 37 percent of South Koreans did not support China’s policies, the figure jumped to 75 percent in 2020.
The two countries, which fought on different sides of the Korean War in 1950, re-established diplomatic ties only in 1992. They were able to more or less maintain stable relations despite the fact that China backed North Korea and South Korea leaned towards the US.
What is worse, while around 30,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea, the country is economically dependent on China, now an economic giant in Asia. While the people are disenchanted with Chinese policies of aggression and distrust, South Korean governments are careful not to “upset relations with Beijing,” diplomats say. The out-going President, Moon Jae-in, was “reluctant to become involved in US efforts to explicitly counter China, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue regional grouping.”
A research paper by Rand summarizes what China expects from South Korea and its implications for the United States. “First, as Beijing becomes more ambitious about changing the status quo in Asia, it might seek to tighten Beijing-Seoul political relations as a way to weaken the US alliance system in the region. Second, Beijing is unlikely to take any actions that would destabilize the North Korean regime, especially if US-China competition grows more intense. This understanding should inform Washington and Seoul’s policy coordination efforts toward Pyongyang. Third, South Korean progressives tend to draw closer to Chinese views on issues of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs. However, it is important to keep in mind that South Korean desire for autonomy in foreign policy and inter-Korean relations does not mean that Seoul renders automatic support for Beijing’s regional agenda.”
In September, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Seoul to ensure that South Korea did not join any anti-China US coalition. China was careful not to espouse the cause of North Korea, but Wang returned without any concrete commitments.
2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the launching of diplomatic relations between the two countries. But the new year began on a sour note, with the South Korean President not attending the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony in February. However, it is likely that Chinese President Xi Jinping may yet visit Seoul sometime this year, provided the spread of COVID-19 is controlled in his country, to charm the new South Korean President into accepting China’s hand of friendship.