One of the biggest challenges facing the fledgling Yoon Suk-yeol administration is how to define a China-South Korea relationship based on “mutual respect.” Chinese opinions following Yoon’s electoral 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 against the backdrop 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 noes” framework (no new Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile batteries in South Korea, no trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea missile defense system, and no trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea security alliance) established with the Moon Jae-in administration would constitute South Korean disrespect for China.
The establishment of a stable framework for managing China-South Korea relations will require the two sides to close the gap in understanding while also adjusting to a transition from the Moon administration’s approach of “choice avoidance” in the context of Sino-U.S. rivalry to the “comprehensive strategic alliance” with the United States as the centerpiece of the Yoon administration’s foreign policy.
The Moon administration had been developing a “strategic cooperative partnership” with China while quietly strengthening across-the-board institutional cooperation 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. Moreover, the Yoon campaign publicly touched on a number of topics sensitive to Beijing during the presidential campaign, including the possibility of a closer relationship with Quad and Yoon’s pledge to purchase from the United States a new Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) battery, which directly conflicts with Moon’s “three noes” pledge.
In meetings with China’s Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming, candidate Yoon stated the goal of developing relations based on “mutual respect” and affirmed the need for close communication and cooperation with Beijing on nontraditional security issues such as climate change, public health, and cultural exchanges. Yoon’s 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, South Korea’s cooperative system with its allies.”
Initial Chinese media reaction to Yoon’s election suggested a mixture of anxiety and veiled warnings, arguing that South Korea’s national interests and rejection of “external influence” (from the United States) would lay the foundations for a positive relationship. The Global Times noted on the eve of the election that extensive trade and educational exchanges and China’s support for peninsular peace and stability serve as favorable foundations for the relationship. But it cited the politically contested consensus with the Moon administration over THAAD as “a classic case of the two countries overcoming external influence” (i.e., perceived interference by the U.S.), arguing that stable relations with China is a prerequisite for South Korea’s national security.
Two days after the election, the Global Times addressed the Yoon campaign’s pursuit of “mutual respect”-based relations, arguing that mutual respect is a basic Chinese diplomatic principle and rebutting South Korean views that China has not respected South Korea. The editorial then argued that the Moon administration’s 2017 “three noes” statement with China was not only a product of mutual respect, but a prerequisite for maintaining normal China-South Korea relations. While asserting that “the THAAD system has exceeded the defense needs of South Korea,” it also argued that “real security must be common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable” and that “China’s strategic security interests must also be respected by Seoul.” On the same day, Ambassador Xing Haiming met President-Elect Yoon Suk-yeol to convey Xi Jinping’s formal letter of congratulations and to exchange views on the development of bilateral relations.
On March 25, Yoon received a congratulatory call from Xi, marking the first time that a Chinese leader had called a South Korean president-elect. The call emphasized the thirtieth anniversary of diplomatic normalization, timely communication to “maintain continuity and stability” in bilateral relations, and regional stability.
Ambassador Xing followed up Xi’s call with an April 6 visit to Yoon transition committee chairman Ahn Cheol-soo, discussing China-South Korea relations and conveying North Korea’s concerns about U.S.-North Korea relations. The following day, Xing gave a notable public presentation expressing his desire that “THAAD” 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 headed China’s official delegation to attend Yoon’s inauguration and issued Xi’s invitation for Yoon to visit China. But Yoon’s willingness to act on the invitation may also founder due to differing definitions of “mutual respect,” as some South Koreans feel it is Xi’s turn to visit to Seoul following Moon Jae-in’s visits to Beijing.
Alongside these official exchanges, unofficial efforts to signal boundaries on the Yoon administration’s handling of China-related issues continued. Renmin University scholar Cheng Xiaohe wrote in the Global Times on the Moon administration’s Quad policy and its evolution, arguing that “China respects South Korea’s cooperation with other countries and organizations, but such cooperation should not be achieved at the expense of China’s national interest.” Tsinghua University’s Liu Jiangyong asserted that although Yoon seeks to strengthen cooperation with the United States and Japan and to take a tougher response to North Korea, Yoon would not want to sacrifice the China-South Korea relationship for an alliance with the United States and Japan.
The next steps in shaping the balance between 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 U.S. President Joe Biden, scheduled only eleven days following his inauguration.
The critical question likely to draw Beijing’s attention is on whether the Yoon administration subordinates the China-South Korea relationship to the U.S.-South Korea “comprehensive strategic alliance” framework or whether the phrase “mutual respect” can be defined in such a way that both South Korea and China are satisfied that each side truly respects the other independent of Chinese perceptions of U.S. influence on South Korea.