South Korea relations with China have always seen ups and downs throughout history. It is a complex and lengthy history of encounters that have affected their current relationship. Their diplomatic ties have been shaped by centuries of trade, cultural exchanges, and conflicts that have defined this historical environment.
It is important to shed light on South Korea’s relations with China because of their international diplomacy, global economics, and regional politics. Their interactions as two major East Asian countries have significant implications that extend well beyond their boundaries.
China and South Korea’s history of early interactions stretches back over two thousand years. The defining features of these interactions were trade, diplomatic connections, and cultural exchanges. The network of trade routes known as the Silk Road, which linked the East and the West, was essential in promoting communication between the two countries. Due to South Korea’s geographical proximity to China, these initial interactions were unavoidable.
One cannot overestimate the impact of Confucianism, a Chinese intellectual and ethical framework. Confucian values, which placed a strong emphasis on moral integrity, respect for authority, and true devotion had a significant influence on South Korean society and government. Both nations’ social and cultural structures are still shaped by these ideals.
The historical relationship between China and South Korea was also shaped by nearby dynasties and powers. For instance, the Qing Dynasty and the Mongol Empire ruled over the area, causing changes in the dynamics of South Korea and China’s diplomatic and economic relations. Their relationship’s trajectory was frequently determined by these power struggles.
The Korean War (1950–1953) was one of the most important moments in the history of ties between China and South Korea. Since South Korea was backed by the United States and other Western countries, and North Korea was supported by China, the war had a significant effect on their diplomatic relations. China’s engagement in the conflict had long-term effects on regional geopolitics and contributed to the partition of the Korean Peninsula in addition to causing a brief rift in relations with South Korea.
Early Years of Diplomatic Relations
In August 1992, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Before that, the PRC only recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), while South Korea recognized only the Republic of China (Taiwan). South Korea was the final Asian nation to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China.
In recent years, China and South Korea have worked to enhance their high-level engagement and expand their strategic and cooperative partnership in various areas. This cooperative collaboration between the two neighboring countries primarily revolves around trade, tourism, and multiculturalism. Differences related to history, politics, and culture continue to exert influence on the relationship between South Korea and China in various ways.
The histories of both countries have been intertwined for thousands of years, characterized by shared cuisines, religions, language scripts, legal systems, and deep-rooted kinship ties. These connections were notably robust during the Song and Ming Dynasties when they maintained diplomatic and commercial relations with Goryeo and the Joseon Dynasty, respectively.
After the Mongol invasion, the Ming and Joseon dynasties emerged, aligning their societies closely with Confucian principles. During Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion, the Wanli Emperor dispatched a total of 221,500 troops to Korea, and the Ming Dynasty supported Joseon during this period. Besides adopting Korean as a common script, Joseon’s central government was structured based on the Chinese framework.
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Economic Ties and Trade Relations
Wide-ranging commercial and economic ties define China’s relationship with South Korea today. By far South Korea’s biggest economic partner, China purchased goods worth $160 billion from the country in 2018, making up 26% of all exports from South Korea. China accounted for 21% of South Korea’s $107 billion in imports in 2018. The China-South Korea Free Commerce Agreement was signed in 2015 to increase yearly bilateral commerce to over $300 billion and increase the GDP of both nations. China, South Korea, and thirteen other Asia-Pacific countries signed the largest free-trade deal in history, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in November 2020. The pact encompasses 30% of the world’s population and economic activity.
Their relationship deteriorated when South Korea announced its intention to deploy THAAD, a decision that China firmly opposed. China attempted to prevent South Korea from installing the missile system by enforcing an unofficial embargo on them. However the one-year diplomatic standoff was resolved at the end of October 2017, and since then, the two nations have been working quickly to rebuild their relationship by fortifying their mutual understanding, fostering harmony among their interests, and resuming their cooperation in all fields.
Political and Cultural Relations
China and South Korea have a complex relationship that combines political and cultural aspects. These two factors have played pivotal roles in shaping the dynamics between the two nations. China and South Korea have been pursuing diplomatic initiatives to develop closer political relations. They have pursued several discussions and projects to improve cooperation throughout the years. Beyond long-standing conflicts, the political relationship between the two nations has undergone significant change.
China and South Korea normalized their relations in 1983, deepening their political and economic ties. China and South Korea have since improved their ties in five stages: It was referred to as a “friendly cooperative relationship” in 1983, a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 2008, a “comprehensive cooperative partnership” in 2003, a “collaborative partnership for the 21st century” in 1998, and a “enriched strategic cooperative partnership” in 2014.
China has been Korea’s main trading partner since 2004 and is regarded as a crucial contributor to the strengthening of ties between the two Koreas. China believes that South Korea is the weakest link in the US alliance system in Northeast Asia. The two biggest challenges to bilateral relations in recent years have been North Korea’s nuclear program and American military assistance to South Korea.
“Balanced diplomacy” was reinstated under Park Geun-Hye’s presidency, and President Moon Jae-in continued to uphold it. To prevent confrontation, South Korea refrained from endorsing American claims against China in recent years.
The flourishing cultural contacts between China and South Korea have strengthened people-to-people connections and mutual understanding. Beyond politics and economics, the two countries share a strong cultural relationship.
Tourism is another important facet of their cross-cultural interactions. Tourists from China and South Korea visit each other’s nations to discover their unique history, customs, and contemporary attractions. This flood of tourists improves awareness and appreciation of different cultures. The “Korean Wave” (Hallyu) has been a driving force behind cultural interaction. China has seen a huge increase in interest in South Korean pop culture, including music, dramas, and films, which has sparked cross-cultural understanding and respect.
Security and Military Cooperation Between China and South Korea
South Korea and China have been attempting to cement their bilateral defense relations in recent years. These initiatives, which are all meant to strengthen mutual trust and collaboration, include military talks, cooperative exercises, and exchanges. The two nations’ military conversations have made it easier to talk about shared concerns and issues related to regional security. These discussions give both countries a forum to exchange viewpoints and plan remedies to common challenges.
Collaborative military drills have grown to be an important part of their partnership. The two nations’ armed services are better able to coordinate their response to similar threats, like piracy and humanitarian disasters, thanks to these drills.
China and South Korea both have a stake in the region’s continued stability. The current situation with North Korea has also been a focal point for security cooperation. Both nations have a stake in the Korean Peninsula becoming stable and devoid of nuclear weapons. In these talks, China’s impact on North Korea and South Korea’s alliance with the US are crucial factors.
The likelihood of South Korea and China working together militarily in the future is still up in the air. Even though both countries have made efforts to improve security cooperation, the intricate regional and worldwide dynamics still have an impact on how their military relations develop. The possibility of increased military cooperation is dependent upon the changing security environment in the region, shifts in both nations’ leadership, and the overall geopolitical context. The future scope and character of their military cooperation will be greatly influenced by these issues.
What’s Behind the Rise in China-South Korea Tensions?
Over time, the US has become a larger market for South Korean exports than China. As of the first half of 2022, South Korea’s exports to the US increased while those to China decreased. According to recent data from the Korean International Trade Association, China accounted for 23.1% of South Korea’s total exports, while the US accounted for 15.7%. China’s share decreased from 25.1% in the first half of 2021, while the US’s increased from 15.3% in the same period.
Experts listed several reasons why South Korea’s exports to China have been declining, but the share of exports to the US has been steadily increasing every year. Although the extended COVID-19 lockdown measures in China slowed the flow of goods into the nation, some analysts argue that the country has also experienced advancements in manufacturing technologies, which have increased domestic production. Over time, South Korea’s exports to the United States have increased.
According to experts, the US-China trade war that began in 2018 has resulted in the US purchasing more South Korean goods than Chinese goods. As South Korean companies have made significant investments in research and development, observers speculate that the US may continue to look for South Korean goods to offset the effects of its protracted trade war with China.
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China’s Strong Remarks
The diplomatic dispute between Beijing and Seoul has not diminished, initiated by the Chinese Ambassador in Seoul, who employed strong language and went into criticism of the South Korean administration’s foreign policy and foreign ministry. The Chinese ambassador boldly criticized the current government’s foreign policy, contending that it was misguided to forecast China’s defeat during a June 2023 meeting with Iza Myung, the leader of South Korea’s opposition party.
He asserted that some individuals were making incorrect assumptions by betting on China’s failure and the United States’ victory. The Chinese envoy further stated that South Korea bore full responsibility for the numerous issues in bilateral relations, and these remarks have increased tensions between the two countries during a parliamentary session. This declaration, conveyed during a meeting involving opposition leader Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea, ignited a diplomatic controversy in South Korea. The statement was broadly interpreted as a warning to retaliate against Seoul for strengthening its alliance with Washington.
South Korea’s Response
Ambassador Xing came under heavy fire from President Yoon for seeking political agitation rather than making an effort to develop diplomatic ties between the two nations. The People Power Party representatives demanded that the Chinese ambassador be declared persona non grata by the government.
Long-term attempts to maintain senior-level diplomatic interaction or restore diplomatic equilibrium may be hampered by the public deterioration of South Korea’s relations with China. Cho Tae-yong, the national security advisor, also stated in public that the Yoon administration is seeking to build a relationship with China based on “mutual respect and common interests.”
South Korea and China share a complex tapestry of history, politics, culture, and security concerns despite their common interests. Their nature of relations, economic ties, trade, and other factors have shaped their interaction over the years. South Korea’s increasing trade relations with the US sparked tensions between them and China. China’s strong remarks in June 2023 started a new wave of tension between the two nations.
The Prime Minister of South Korea issued a strong condemnation of the ambassador’s comments, deeming them highly inappropriate. He criticized the ambassador’s approach, highlighting that focusing solely on criticism instead of efforts to enhance bilateral relations was an unsuitable course of action for a diplomat.
An official from the presidential office in Seoul emphasized the vital role of an ambassador as a bridge between two nations. The official noted that ineffective performance in this role could potentially jeopardize the mutual benefits of both countries.
The first vice foreign minister of the nation regarded the comments as a violation of the principles outlined in the Vienna Convention. This is because they could be interpreted as an endeavor to meddle in South Korea’s domestic political affairs. According to the Vienna Convention, which governs diplomatic relations, sovereign nations are obligated not to interfere in the internal matters of others.
In response, China summoned the South Korean Ambassador during the weekend and expressed significant discontent, labeling Seoul’s actions as unjust. Given the ongoing exchange of harsh statements from both sides, it seems that it will take some time before the two countries can initiate efforts to mend their strained relations.
Why Did China Enter the Korean War?
China entered the Korean War in 1950 to defend its security interests, prevent the fall of the communist government in North Korea, and establish its dominance over other Asian powers in the early stages of the Cold War. It aimed to counter American progress and encourage the expansion of communism throughout the area.
Is South Korea an Ally of the US or China?
South Korea is an ally of the US but their best trading partner is China. Their trade with the US has been improving over the years. As South Korea’s trading with China is decreasing gradually, it has sparked tensions between the two countries.