It seems as if China and South Korea’s “honeymoon” phase is coming to an end. Just two years ago the two country leaders were standing side by side in friendship. However, several years of somewhat amicable relations are coming to end over an issue of bilateral relations. Tensions between the two countries have risen as South Korea prepares for the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. Developed by the United States, the THAAD system would help bolster some much needed protection from the erratic and unpredictable North Korea. However, China believes this new system would intrude on their nation’s security. The issue has caused anger and discord among the nations and the conflict is affecting every aspect of society. With tensions building, experts look to predict what could be next for China and South Korea’s relations.
Last year, South Korea announced the deployment of a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system within the country. This system is just one out of many THAAD systems that help protect various countries around the world. However, the news led to protests and concern from the region. China was outraged by the American backed project and claimed that the close proximity of South Korea would allow the Koreans to spy on China’s missile system. Despite their concerns, South Korea insists that the system’s only purpose is for protecting the region from North Korea.
China keeps a tight grip on its authority and reputation in the region and is very suspicious of other countries’ motives, especially this close to its borders. The country seems to be willing to go to great lengths to make sure that it remains superior. For example, several South Korean businesses are being hit by unofficial economic sanctions from Beijing. A perfect example is South Korean conglomerate, Lotte Group is providing the land for the THAAD system. Upon receiving this news, China called for a boycott on the company’s product within the country. There has also been reports of several cyber attacks on South Korean technology. This conflict is affecting almost every aspect of their societies. Even the many South Korean expats living in China claim that they are being treated differently from their Chinese counterparts.
Another issue that could fuel tensions between China and South Korea is America’s involvement in the region’s issues. Thomas Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained how China’s suspicion of political motives affects its relationship with South Korea Wired Magazine.
“China cares deeply about it primarily I think for political reasons. The Korean peninsula is very close to them and I think it offends their sensibilities to have another symbol of American presence there,” says Karako. “And also in a more tactical sense this is something that will drive the United States and South Korea closer together and China ultimately doesn’t really want that.”
South Korea and America are determined to put North Korea under control and are willing to inflict sanctions and consequences on the authoritative country. China may say that it is committed to the same goal, but their actions show much differently. As North Korea’s biggest trading partner, China would be negatively affected by a crippling of North Korea. The collapsing of the country would mean a reunification of Korea and the creation of another Asian superpower, something that China wants to avoid. Not only would this give China more political competition, but it would also create an influx of refugees into their borders, which they also do not want. China aims to keep its position of power in the region, even if this means allowing North Korea to continue its behavior and ignoring the pleas from other countries to join in on pressuring Kim Jong-Un.
When it comes to saving the relationship between China and South Korea, it seems that Japan could play a role. Experts point out that the countries could likely fix their strained relationship by joining hands over their shared anti Japanese sentiments. Both countries are currently involved in spreading anti Japanese propaganda through their own political motives. For instance, South Korea has incited more conflict over the historical issue of comfort women. Using this controversial event as a political ploy has led South Korea to spread a negative image of Japan around the world. For example, despite the situation that it is essential to remove the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea additionally established a new statue in Busan the other day. These actions are in clear violation of the South Korea-Japan Comfort Women Agreement act. Signed in 2015, South Korea is prohibited from creating strife from this historical event. As South Korea makes an enemy out of the world’s third largest economy, they could also become an enemy of the world’s second largest economy, China if they allow relations to further sour.
As the comfort women issue continues to spread throughout the world via South Korean immigrant communities, China is doing the same. The country is creating its own source of anti Japanese sentiments by spreading the issue of the Nanking Massacre and hosting annual celebrations of its defeats of Japan. Just like the South Korean immigrants, there have been several instances of Chinese immigrants spreading the controversy of the Nanking Massacre. For example, the Canadian province of Canada is currently dealing with the issue of creating a Nanking Massacre Day. As the home of the largest Asian population in Canada, Chinese Canadian lawmakers are pushing for a memorial day for the controversial event. The potential legislation has caused a great divide between Asian Canadians. This is because the dispute, even among Chinese immigrants, has begun to emerge: whether the number of victims during this incident might be intentionally increased from the right number, to begin with, this incident was created by anti Japanese education led by Chinese government for long years, etc. These examples show how both countries seem to put a lot of effort into making Japan look like an evil power.
With as much effort that is going into these anti Japanese movements, China and South Korea are also allowing the THAAD issue to further divide the region. There will be no hope for stability in the region if these relations continue to crumble.
Political analysts point out that there could be a slight chance of reconciliation through negotiation. In fact, President Xi has told reporters that he would be willing to negotiate with South Korea, but only if the country can learn to respect their concerns.
“China, too, pays great attention to the bilateral ties,” Xi said to reporters in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. “We’re willing to work with South Korea to preserve the hard-won results, properly handle disputes, put China-South Korea relations back onto a normal track and benefit both peoples on the basis of mutual understanding and mutual respect.”
As South Korea continues its plans to build the THAAD system, it seems as President Xi’s terms for negotiation prerequisites will not be met, even though the two countries have scheduled a meeting in July or August. However, the THAAD system is scheduled to be operational in June. Until then, the system is being held at an American air base in the region, while South Korea prepares the land and infrastructure as decided upon in the official agreement.
Ironically, this conflict has distracted South Korea and China from the problem that started it all: North Korea. As the unpredictable country continues to test missiles and threaten the rest of the world, China and South Korea need to find a way to come together for the common goal of peace.