When Moon Jae-in, the outgoing president of South Korea, returned home from Washington in May last year, his foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, rushed to clarify the mention of Taiwan in his joint statement with Joe Biden – a highly sensitive subject for South Korea’s biggest trading partner, China.
“The Taiwan-related expressions [in the joint statement] are ‘very general expressions’,” Chung said a day after the statement was released. As if this clarification was not enough, Chung’s deputy, Choi Jong-gun, added: “China would appreciate the fact that South Korea does not see China as an enemy.”
For South Korea, its position sandwiched between two great rival powers – the US and China – has been a notable discomfort for occupants of the presidential Blue House. The country of nearly 52 million people relies on Washington to provide security in facing North Korea’s constant provocation. China, meanwhile, is its top trading partner.
Seoul’s decade-long balancing act between Beijing and Washington may no longer be as easy, said Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific research center at Stanford University. “You cannot ignore China… [but] given the recent rise of anti-Chinese sentiments among Koreans on top of the ongoing US-China conflict, finding ways to reconcile this situation with the reality of China as a key economic partner is a difficult question.”
The opposition candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main conservative People Power party, takes a more hawkish approach to China than Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic party. In recent weeks, Yoon’s campaign has vowed to be more vocal on human rights and bring in a new terminal high altitude area defense (Thaad) missile defense system closer to Seoul. It prompted analysts to recall memories of an earlier diplomatic incident with China in 2017.
Lee’s view is that for a country of South Korea’s geography and economic reality, it is unwise to pick sides between the US and China – a typical dilemma of many mid-sized powers share in Asia these days. Yet Lee is also facing rising anti-China sentiment at home: 77% of South Korea’s public hold a negative view of China, according to a mid-2021 Pew survey. In 2015, it was only 37%. Ahead of the Winter Olympics last month, Shin found in a survey that more than 40% of his respondents supported the idea of South Korea engaging in a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
The shift in South Korea’s thinking on China was marked by Beijing’s economic retaliation five years ago following Seoul’s installation of the Thaad system. Seoul said the move was aimed at North Korea, but Beijing saw the ultimate target of Thaad as China itself.
After rounds of harsh economic counter measures against South Korea, Beijing finally forced Seoul to back down, but that also scarred South Korea’s public, who began to grow wary of China’s flexing its might. Months later, the then-foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, laid out a proposal of three “noes” in parliament. Two of them were no additional deployment of Thaad, and not forming a military alliance with the US and Japan.
“China’s worst fears in dealing with the next South Korean president are Seoul’s deployment of another Thaad system, and South Korean potential participation in the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ initiative, which is led by the US and Japan,” said Liu Jiangyong , a north-east Asia expert at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
Liu said China would also pay close attention to Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang because it hoped to see stability in the Korean peninsula. “But ultimately, Beijing is wary that South Korea may be drawn to align itself with US and Japan’s current approach to Taiwan,” he added.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King’s College, London, said South Korea was well aware of China’s potential economic retaliation as Seoul was being integrated into the US-led coalition to counter China’s influence. “But even if China comes up with another round of economic coercion, I don’t think South Korea would be as concerned,” he said.
“This is because, first, since the last Thaad incident, South Korea has already begun to diversify its economy away from China by opening factories in Vietnam, for example; second, the public has begun to turn against China in the last few years – and in particular since the start of the Covid pandemic.”
Pacheco Pardo added: “South Korea nowadays is more willing to take action, but not by itself, but with like-minded partners, such as the United States and Europe.”
This means that whether it’s Yoon or Lee who wins the race to the Blue House on Wednesday, Seoul’s alliance with Washington will still be its top priority. Although labeled by Yoon as “pro-North, pro-China, anti-US”Lee’s foreign policy adviser, Wi Sung-lac, said his country’s ties with the US had yet to achieve their full potential. This included potential collaboration with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), another US-led initiative denounced by China as an example of “the cold war mentality”.
This will pose a headache for Beijing. But Liu said his country was confident that whatever the next South Korean president’s China policy would be, Seoul still has to pay attention to its biggest trading partner. “There is no major conflict over the two countries’ core interests, after all.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism