Following an early ambassadorial visit and a courtesy call on President-elect Park Geun-hye from China’s special envoy Vice Minister Zhang Zhijun, Park has decided to reciprocate by sending her first special envoys to Beijing during the transition. The exchange illustrates a mutual recognition that Sino-South Korean relations had deteriorated under Lee Myung-Bak and Hu Jintao and that Park and Xi have a chance to start out on the right foot this time. (See-Won Byun and I review the respective South Korean and Chinese leadership transitions over the last four months in detail here alongside parallel assessments of inter-Korean relations and U.S.-ROK relations by Aidan Foster-Carter and Victor Cha and Ellen Kim.)
This early exchange shows that both sides are acutely aware that political problems in the China-South Korea relationship do not serve either country, especially given a bilateral trade relationship that reached $220 billion in 2011. South Korea and China are natural economic partners, but North Korea continues to rear its head as a challenging sticking point between the two sides. Xi had already reached out to Kim Jong-un in late November through a visit to Pyongyang by sending as an envoy Li Jianguo, the secretary general of the standing committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress. During Li’s meeting with Kim Jong-un (Kim’s second with Chinese visitors), he delivered a letter from Xi that pledged continuity of high-level exchanges and emphasized the importance of “strategic communication” between the two sides. However, it is not clear what sort of communication occurred regarding North Korea’s satellite launch plans, the announcement of which the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson greeted with concern only two days later. With South Korea now on the UN Security Council, the question of how to respond to North Korea’s defiance of security council resolutions could continue as a major source of difference in Sino-South Korean relations.
China is also attempting to put down some political markers with South Korea in other areas as well. China responded sensitively to public references at last October’s Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) to U.S.-ROK consultations on missile defense cooperation and did not welcome the U.S. decision last October to permit South Korea to develop mid-range missile capabilities in response to North Korea’s growing threat. Former Chinese diplomat Yang Xiyu gave a rather pointed warning in a December 31 Korea Times interview that the U.S.-ROK alliance should not be directed at China. China may try to use this metric as a way of pressuring South Korea to limit trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan, despite the fact that recent developments in U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral coordination have all occurred in direct response to successive North Korean provocations. China has already partly succeeded, as sensitivity toward its position was reportedly a reason for South Korea’s postponement of plans to establish a military information sharing agreement with Japan. The question of whether the U.S.-ROK alliance is anti-China also could be used to limit the development of South Korean regional security relations in East Asia.
There is a strong rationale for China to improve relations with South Korea so as to consolidate its strategic position on the peninsula, especially given North Korea’s vulnerability. But will improved China-South Korea relations come at the expense of the United States and possibly at the expense of South Korea’s own longstanding interest in Korean reunification? ROK relations with China and the United States are often framed in zero-sum terms, both in China and in South Korea. However, President-elect Park has expressed her intent to pursue a strong relationship with both China and the United States, and has shown no interest in weakening the U.S.-ROK alliance. Thus, the test for China that is likely to determine the potential and limits for the Sino-South Korean relationship going forward will be whether China can accept and respect South Korean political and security interests on their own, or whether China’s view of Seoul will continue to be intermediated and constrained by other priorities in its management of relations with North Korea and the United States.