How will South Korea-China relations unfold under Yoon administration? - The Korea Times
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How will South Korea-China relations unfold under Yoon administration?

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, shakes hands with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan at his office in Yongsan, Seoul, before holding talks on Tuesday. The meeting took place after Yoon was sworn in as president earlier in the day. Korea Times photo by Seo Jae-hoon
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, shakes hands with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan at his office in Yongsan, Seoul, before holding talks on Tuesday. The meeting took place after Yoon was sworn in as president earlier in the day. Korea Times photo by Seo Jae-hoon

Beijing increasingly reaching out to Seoul under new president, as Washington steps up efforts to secure partners amid rivalry

By Kim Bo-eun

HONG KONG ― South Korea's new leader Yoon Suk-yeol's evident siding with the U.S. has had observers projecting that ties with China will weaken under the new administration.

The new president's plans to boost engagement with Washington in security and trade comes at a time when the U.S. rivalry with Beijing is escalating in the Indo-Pacific region.

Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae-in had opted not to take sides, as Korea relies largely on the U.S. for security and on China for its economy. Moon had also counted on Beijing to help achieve progress in relations with reclusive North Korea.

Foreign policy dynamics are expected to change under the Yoon administration. But China appears set on making sure ties stay intact and that it keeps its influence in the region.

On the same day Yoon was sworn in, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited him to hold a summit. The invitation came ahead of a scheduled meeting between Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21, which will be the quickest meeting to date between a U.S. and South Korean president after the inauguration of the latter.

The invitation was delivered by China's Vice President Wang Qishan who attended Yoon's inauguration ceremony. Not only was Wang a higher-ranking official to attend an inauguration ceremony for a South Korean president compared to previous figures; it was also a rare overseas visit by a senior Chinese leader since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Korea's Ambassador to China Jang Ha-sung said this reflects "the development of bilateral ties, as well as wishes on the part of China to further promote relations between the countries."

China's state media, The Global Times, in the past months has continued to emphasize bilateral ties. In an editorial published Tuesday titled "Yoon most likely to handle relations with China well," the government mouthpiece said, "The respect and importance (China) attaches to South Korea will not change with the election of a new president. China has displayed huge sincerity to push its ties with South Korea to move forward steadily and develop the ties to a higher level."

Former President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before their summit in Beijing, Dec. 23, 2019. Joint Press Corps
Former President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before their summit in Beijing, Dec. 23, 2019. Joint Press Corps

Despite Yoon's anticipated shift toward the U.S., South Korea's traditional security partner, his transition committee did not include additional deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system among the incoming administration's major tasks. This had been one of Yoon's election pledges, as a means to boost defense capabilities against North Korea's growing threats.

THAAD is a thorny issue with China, as it believes the U.S. missile defense system can spy into its territory. South Korea's 2016 decision with the U.S. to deploy THAAD and the subsequent stationing of the system angered Beijing and prompted it to take a series of moves that curbed the operations of Korean businesses both in China and Korea.

The omission of the plan from the Yoon administration's main priorities is seen as Korea still taking China into account, despite growing provocations from the North, as well as Washington's stepped-up efforts to solidify ties with partners in the Indo-Pacific in the midst of its power struggle with Beijing.

Experts said Korea-China bilateral relations are set to face the toughest times, but will still remain key.

"Having been tangled somewhat with Russia's attack on Ukraine, especially in the eyes of the U.S., Beijing's relations with Washington and its major allies have deteriorated even further," said Shi Yin-hong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

Shi mentioned Pyongyang's acceleration of weapons development. "Yoon, a declared hardline conservative, will necessarily take a harsh posture toward Kim based on closer allied cooperation with the U.S. and perhaps also with Japan," he said.

"This, and China's teaming up with North Korea as well as Russia and Iran, together with dropping denuclearization from its policy toward North Korea in late March 2021, will surely push political relations between Seoul and Beijing to go down further, if not dramatically."

But at the same time, the professor noted that both sides will try to maintain profitable trade relations and referred to China's motivations to stay engaged with South Korea that go beyond trade.

"China has an important interest in preventing South Korea from getting involved more deeply in the U.S. and Japanese security system against China," he said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at his inauguration ceremony held at the National Assembly in Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at his inauguration ceremony held at the National Assembly in Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap

Fei Xue, senior Asia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, shared views that ties with China will continue to matter for Korea.

He said Seoul prioritizing its alliance with the U.S. to mitigate threats from Pyongyang and enhance supply chains of key industries and technologies "does not mean South Korea is willing to jeopardize its relations with China."

He added, "The government will strive to maintain cordial relations with China, not only because its export-oriented economy is deeply embedded in the supply chain network centered on China. China is and will continue to be an indispensable party to any resolution to North Korea's nuclear program."


Kim Bo-eun bkim@koreatimes.co.kr


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