Seoul making Beijing a foreign policy priority by setting up bureau exclusively for China affairs
- Move reflects South Korea’s efforts to enhance relations with its giant neighbour
- Japan seen as unhappy, with shift suggesting a downgrade in Seoul-Tokyo relations
Seoul plans to overhaul its diplomatic focus on China by establishing a separate bureau in its foreign ministry entirely dedicated to China affairs. The change comes after Beijing’s economic retaliation to South Korean deployment of the US’ anti-ballistic missile defence system.
Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk last week confirmed the push for the internal restructuring, adding that diplomatic demands concerning “Asia-Pacific region” affairs were growing rapidly.
A bureau dedicated to China reflects Seoul’s efforts to enhance its diplomatic endeavours with its neighbour.
It is considered a significant upgrade, as China affairs are now handled at a department level: the second and third departments at the ministry’s Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau. The first is dedicated to Japan.
The ministry has for years pushed for the establishment of a “China bureau”, yet the plan was never realised because of its limited human resources and budget constraints.
Under the reorganisation, the ministry’s Japan-related affairs department would be merged with the one that deals with India and Australia affairs.
Ties between Beijing and Seoul have been strained since the deployment of THAAD in South Korea’s Seongju county in 2017, with the dispute leading to Chinese boycotts of South Korean companies.
Seoul said the anti-missile system was needed to ward off threats from North Korea. But Beijing regarded THAAD as a threat, compromising China’s national security by monitoring its military activities.
China then embarked on an aggressive, unofficial campaign to stop Chinese tour groups travelling to South Korea. Its boycott cost South Korea’s tourism industry 7.5 trillion won (US$6.7 billion) between January and September last year, according to data compiled by the South Korean national assembly’s budget office – putting enormous pressure on Seoul.
China’s foreign ministry said that China and South Korea were close and friendly neighbours, and that China hoped to work closely with Seoul to institute plans the countries’ two leaders have agreed to.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, agreed last month at the Apec summit in Port Moresby to work together for the progression of their Free Trade Agreement discussions and environmental issues, vowing to improve the bilateral relations.
“Beijing wishes to work with Korea to enhance its communications and build stabilised bilateral relations,” it said.
Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said that “creating a separate China bureau shows Seoul recognises the growing influence of China in this region and the growing importance for ROK … a China bureau could promote ‘hugging and hedging’ policies toward China simultaneously.”
“The previous THAAD dispute has totally changed the image of China in the mind of many South Koreans who now see a rising China as a potential blessing but at the same time also want to hedge against another possibility that China would use its growing power coercively,” Zhao said.
In contrast, Tokyo’s reaction was generally negative, calculating its implications for the country.
One Japanese government official, working in the Asia-Pacific region, called the situation “worrying”.
“The move can be seen as Korea’s practise of Sinocentrism … Its focus is definitely moving towards China, and that can’t be good news to the future Japan-Korea relations, especially now when the relations are deteriorating over the historical dispute,” the official said.
South Korea and Japan continue to dispute unresolved issues from the Japanese colonial period that ended in 1945, including sex slavery and forced labour of Korean civilians.
Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a visiting professor at Pusan National University in South Korea and adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum – a donor-funded, non-profit foreign policy institute in Honolulu, Hawaii – said that “the establishment of the China bureau does not [necessarily] have negative impacts on Japan-Korea relations, but the merging of Japan-related affairs department with Australia and India certainly does,” noting that the decision might undermine South Korea’s ability to work with Japan.
“The move would give the impression that Japan is becoming less important to ROK. But the negatives will be greater for Korea as it would undermine its capacity to deal with the array of issues and initiatives with Japan, and even prospects for multilateral cooperation and coordination based on the alliance with the US,” Hinata-Yamaguchi said.
Zhao said, though, that he did not consider that lumping Japan together with Australia and India would mean a lesser standing for Japan.
“These three countries are all democracies that share similar geostrategic interests and visions in the Asia-Pacific region,” Zhao said. “They would probably continue enhancing their internal cooperation with each other and with the US in the foreseeable future ... It makes some sense for ROK to put these three countries into the same group and deal with them with one coherent and consistent policy.”