Don’t expect a new head in Seoul to change the face of China-South Korea ties
Wariness of Pyongyang to constrain new president’s options, analysts say
China’s ties with South Korea, strained by the deployment of a US anti-missile system south of Seoul, are unlikely to change much irrespective of who wins today’s South Korean presidential election, diplomatic observers say.
But some said Moon Jae-in, who was ahead in pre-election polling, was more likely to focus on improving relations with North Korea, and that any attempt to improve ties between Seoul and Beijing would be seen as a positive step.
Ties between Beijing and Seoul soured after impeached South Korean president Park Geun-hye agreed to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in the country. China views the system’s powerful radar capabilities as a threat to its national security.
Moon Chung-in, an adviser to Moon Jae-in, said the candidate was willing to engage with the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang and seek peace if North Korea did not carry out another nuclear test.
“In fact, Moon’s peninsula policy is very similar to that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with double suspension and two-track talks,” the adviser said, referring to China’s proposal for Seoul and Washington to suspend large-scale military drills and for Pyongyang to abandon missile and nuclear tests.
He added that THAAD had caused economic and geopolitical damage to South Korea, and Moon Jae-in was likely to reassess the deployment.
“Without THAAD, the China-South Korea relationship will repair instantly,” he said. “He should have a summit with Xi and have goodwill gestures.
“But Moon can’t give the impression that he is opposing THAAD because of Chinese pressure.”
State-run China Central Television has been running hourly updates of voting in South Korea.
“The presidential election is expected to bring a fresh atmosphere to the South Korean political circle,” said Lu Chao, director of the Border Studies Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.
“To the new president, the relationship with China could become an important issue on the agenda, and I think to reopen the dialogue, [the new president] could reconsider the THAAD issue.
“In such a case, relations between China and South Korea would at least see some improvement though major shifts could be unlikely.”
Although it would be hard for South Korea to cancel the THAAD deployment, the Democratic Party’s Moon and the other presidential front runner, Ahn Cheol-soo from the People’s Party, have expressed reservations about it.
Professor Hwang Jaeho from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said it was more likely the new administration would seek to adopt a different approach to THAAD than the Park government, even if it was not able to end the deployment.
“As the deployment involving the US has already become operational, THAAD issues are not simply about South Korea and China relations,” Hwang said. “China would also try to figure out a solution to the problem as it also knows that withdrawal is impossible now”.
Professor Lee Dong-ryul, a Chinese studies specialist at Dongduk Women’s University, said Moon would seek dialogue with North Korea, but relations with Washington would still be Seoul’s top priority.
But deep mistrust between Beijing and Seoul, highlighted during the THAAD row, had clouded the prospect of any major shift in bilateral relations under the new administration as the regional geopolitical landscape remained largely unchanged, analysts said.
Chinese companies have vowed to stop dealing with South Korean firms due to the THAAD row, and fewer mainland Chinese tourists are visiting South Korea.
Choi Kang, a principal fellow at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Moon’s desire to engage Pyongyang would be restrained by South Korean wariness over the threat from Pyongyang and US pressure.
“With such clear limits, I see the next South Korean administration’s North Korea policy will be similar to what we have now,” Choi said.
Hwang said a visit by the new South Korean president to Beijing could be a way to break the ice.
It is an unwritten diplomatic tradition in South Korea that a newly elected president pay visits to the US, its major ally, and key neighbours including China and Japan after their inauguration.
Park visited Beijing in her second overseas visit in June 2013, four months after she took the office, starting a period of warm relations between Seoul and Beijing.
John Lee, a senior associate at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the next administration would have little room for major policy shifts.
“North Korea’s continued missile and nuclear tests will further justify the need for a missile defence system,” he said. “Even if the United States and South Korea renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement, we won’t see significant changes taking place immediately, especially regarding the deployment of THAAD.”