One of the biggest challenges facing the young Yoon Suk-yeol administration is how to define a China-South Korea relationship based on “mutual respect”. Chinese opinions after Yoon’s election victory suggest that the Yoon and Xi Jinping administrations’ definitions of “mutual respect” are not the same.
The Yoon administration views “mutual respect” with China in the context of perceptions that China has prioritized its own imperatives over South Korea’s national security needs, while Chinese commentators suggest that any challenge by the Yoon administration to the “three no’s” framework (no new high-altitude air defense missile batteries in South Korea, no trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea missile defense system, and no U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral security alliance) established with the Moon Jae-in administration would constitute South Korean disrespect for China. .
Establishing a stable framework for managing China-Korea relations will require both sides to bridge the understanding gap while accommodating a transition from the “choice avoidance” approach of the Moon administration in the context of Sino-US rivalry towards the “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States as the centerpiece of the Yoon administration’s foreign policy.
The Moon administration had developed a “strategic cooperative partnership” with China while quietly strengthening institutional cooperation at all levels with the Joe Biden administration. In contrast, the Yoon administration has abandoned the pretense of choice avoidance by opting for overt alignment with the United States. Additionally, the Yoon campaign has publicly addressed a number of sensitive topics for Beijing during the presidential campaign, including the possibility of a closer relationship with Quad and Yoon’s commitment to purchase a new U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) Batterywhich directly conflicts with Moon’s “three no’s” promise.
In meetings with Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming, candidate Yoon said the goal of developing relations based on “mutual respect” and affirmed the need for close communication and cooperation with Beijing on non-traditional security issues such as climate change, public health and culture. Exchanges. Yoon is underlying premise was that “just as South Korea does not oppose China’s Belt and Road initiative and works with Beijing in trade and commerce, China for its part should accept, rather than oppose, the system of South Korea’s cooperation with its allies”.
Chinese media’s initial reaction to Yoon’s election suggested a mixture of anxiety and veiled warnings, saying that South Korea’s national interests and rejection of “external influence” (from the United States ) would lay the foundation for a positive relationship. the world times noted on the eve of the elections that extensive trade and education exchanges and China’s support for peace and stability on the peninsula provide favorable foundations for the relationship. But he cited the politically contested consensus with the Moon administration on THAAD as “a classic case of both countries overcoming outside influence” (i.e. perceived interference by the United States), arguing that stable relations with China are a prerequisite for South Korea’s national security. .
Two days after the election, the world times addressed the Yoon campaign’s pursuit of relations based on “mutual respect,” arguing that mutual respect is a basic Chinese diplomatic principle and rebutting South Korean views that China has failed to respect South Korea . The editorial went on to argue that the Moon administration’s 2017 “three no’s” declaration with China was not just a product of mutual respect, but a prerequisite for maintaining normal relations between China and China. South Korea. While asserting that “the THAAD system has exceeded South Korea’s defense needs”, he also argued that “real security must be common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable” and that “the strategic security interests of China must also be respected by Seoul”. On the same day, Ambassador Xing Haiming met with President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol to convey Xi Jinping’s official congratulatory letter and to exchange views on the development of bilateral relations.
On March 25, Yoon received a congratulatory call from Xi, marking the first time a Chinese leader has called a South Korean president-elect. The call emphasized the 30th anniversary of diplomatic normalization, a timely communication to “maintain continuity and stability” in bilateral relations and regional stability.
Ambassador Xing followed Xi’s call with an April 6 to visit to Yoon’s transition committee chairman Ahn Cheol-soo, discussing China-Korea relations and raising North Korea’s concerns about US-North Korea relations. The next day, Xing gave a notable speech public presentation expressing his wish that “THAAD” does not become a “sensitive word” between the two countries, and arguing that China-South Korea relations should be mutually beneficial.
These messages were no doubt reinforced in private meetings between Yoon and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who led the official Chinese delegation to attend Yoon’s inauguration and extended Xi’s invitation for Yoon to go to China. But Yoon’s willingness to act on the invitation may also crumble due to differing definitions of ‘mutual respect’ as some South Koreans believe it’s Xi’s turn to head to Seoul after the visits of Moon Jae-in in Beijing.
Alongside these official exchanges, unofficial efforts to signal the limits of the Yoon administration’s handling of China-related issues have continued. Cheng Xiaohe, researcher at Renmin University wrote in the Global Times on the Moon administration’s Quad policy and its development, saying that “China respects South Korea’s cooperation with other countries and organizations, but such cooperation should not be carried out at detriment to China’s national interest”. Liu Jiangyong of Tsinghua University affirmed that although Yoon seeks to strengthen cooperation with the United States and Japan and to react more harshly to North Korea, Yoon would not want to sacrifice the China-South Korea relationship for an alliance with the United States and the Japan.
The next steps in balancing Yoon’s strategic alignment with the United States and Sino-South Korean efforts to define in practical terms the meaning of “mutual respect” will likely come after Beijing has had the opportunity. to digest the results of Yoon’s first summit. meeting with US President Joe Biden, scheduled only eleven days after his inauguration.
The crucial question likely to attract Beijing’s attention is whether the Yoon administration subordinates Sino-Korean relations to the framework of a “comprehensive strategic alliance” between the United States and South Korea or whether the expression “mutual respect” can be defined in such a way that both South Korea and China are confident that each side truly respects the other regardless of Chinese perceptions of US influence over South Korea.
Scott A. Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author with See-Won Byun of a triennial evaluation of China-Korea relations for Comparative connectionspublished by Pacific Forum.