28 October 2016
South Korean President Park Geun-hye (right) has gone to great lengths to strengthen Sino-Korean ties, but her country's military alliance with the US will remain irreplaceable in the foreseeable future. Photo: AFP
South Korean President Park Geun-hye (right) has gone to great lengths to strengthen Sino-Korean ties, but her country's military alliance with the US will remain irreplaceable in the foreseeable future. Photo: AFP

What is tricky about China-South Korea relations

The “One Belt, One Road” plan put forward by President Xi Jinping and the series of overseas infrastructural programs that come along with it are as much a part of China’s ambitious diplomatic strategy to counter the United States on a global scale as a means to export its surplus productivity and raise the international status of the renminbi.

Following the Gwadar Port development program in Pakistan, the proposed transoceanic railway in South America and the Kra Canal in Thailand, the latest high-profile infrastructural plan that has caught widespread international attention has to be the Sino-Korean train ferry service.

Under the proposal announced by the National Development and Reform Commission of the State Council in Beijing, trains departing from South Korea will be loaded at the Port of Incheon onto ferries that will take them to the city of Yantai in Shandong province, where the trains will continue their journey along China’s railroad network, which extends all the way through Central Asia into the European continent.

The reason why the proposal has drawn so much attention is not only because of its sheer scale but also because of the fact that it totally by-passes North Korea, Beijing’s traditional ally.

Many international relations analysts believe that once the proposal materializes, it will mark a milestone in the history of Beijing-Seoul relations and signify that catering to Pyongyang will no longer be the overwhelming priority in Beijing’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula.

President Park Geun-hye of South Korea is well-known for her pro-Beijing stance, unlike that of her father Park Chung-hee, a former military strongman and president who was a hardline anti-communist.

In fact, the idea of establishing a Sino-Korean train ferry service across the Yellow Sea was first proposed by former president Kim Dae-jung during his official visit to China in 1998 and was among Park Geun-hye’s election pledges during her presidential campaign in 2007.

Ever since she took office, she has made painstaking efforts to coordinate with Beijing in order to turn the idea into a reality.

The reason Park has gone to great lengths to strengthen ties with Beijing is a no-brainer: the volume of trade between the two countries has increased a whopping 35-fold since 1992, and China is now South Korea’s biggest overseas export market and investment destination as well as its No. 1 source of imports.

Simply put, the continued economic prosperity of South Korea lies not with the US nor Japan but with the Chinese market.

Apart from economic concerns, security is also an important factor behind Seoul’s pro-Beijing policy.

After all, North Korea still poses a major threat to the national security of South Korea.

Although Pyongyang’s provocative moves in recent years have mostly been considered as bluffing, once these bluffing tactics get out of hand, they could have catastrophic consequences.

As probably the only country on Earth that still has a substantial influence on the North Korean leadership, China is no doubt the one South Korea can look to for help and reassurance.

However, it is also important to note that, although Seoul is eagerly strengthening its ties with Beijing, it doesn’t necessarily mean US-South Korean relations are deteriorating.

In fact, in the eyes of South Korean leaders, close ties with Beijing and a long-established military alliance with the US are not mutually exclusive.

Besides, Seoul understands very well that it would be unrealistic to expect China to abandon North Korea totally, as maintaining an influence on Pyongyang can always provide Beijing with diplomatic leverage over Washington.

North Korea can also act as a buffer zone between China and South Korea, where there is a heavy US military presence.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that China-South Korea relations might be undergoing a honeymoon period in the diplomatic and economic spheres, the majority of the South Korean public remains skeptical about China’s reliability as a friend.

A recent survey shows 70 percent of South Koreans believe that Beijing will still be on Pyongyang’s side in times of crisis, while 60 percent believe that Beijing doesn’t truly welcome the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Most South Koreans, therefore, would rather their country keep a special relationship with the US.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 11.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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