Blog · March 18, 2022

Can Seoul court Beijing’s perception problem?

Author: Sangpil Jin, University of Copenhagen

It has become increasingly evident that South Korea’s public perception of China has cooled considerably in recent years. There are several reasons behind this development, including bilateral cultural spats, the dispute over Seoul’s procurement of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and China’s close ties with North Korea.

Despite the adverse circumstances, bilateral ties between China and South Korea have not reached the point of no return. Although China and South Korea have distinct political, social and cultural systems, neither Beijing nor Seoul can afford to ignore the potential geoeconomic and geopolitical value of a strong China–South Korea relationship. As well as being a major South Korean trading partner, China’s support is crucial for maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula.

China should be wary of the growing confidence among its increasingly nationalist populace about its international status. There are increasing signs that Chinese diplomatic circles have become concerned about the international reception of China’s foreign policy.

The commentary by former Chinese ambassador to Britain, Fu Ying, in the People’s Daily illustrates the belated recognition by Chinese policymakers that Beijing needs to rein in the so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy increasingly adopted by Chinese diplomats. As a highly-experienced ex-diplomat, Fu recognises that the image of a country is judged in the court of international opinion.

Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong similarly recognises the need to avoid the pitfalls of overconfidence, taking issue with ‘[China’s] strong sense of superiority and self-confidence’ — a phenomenon found among many young Chinese students. The President of International Studies at Peking University, Wang Jisi, likewise adopts a cautious tone, predicting a protracted ‘hot peace’ — rather than Cold War — between China and the United States.

These timely comments by prominent Chinese intellectuals lay bare the concerns that Chinese elites have about the deteriorating international perceptions of their country. Beijing cannot successfully implement major policies like the Belt and Road Initiative unless its leadership regains some form of international goodwill.

South Korean foreign policy traditionally relies on its military alliance with the United States. This is unlikely to change as long as the North Korea threat remains. But as the new world order shapes up, South Korea should strive for relatively more balanced diplomacy with both superpowers, helping to maintain at least some semblance of geopolitical balance in the Asia-Pacific.

Given the high-level of hostility among large sections of the South Korean public towards China, pursuing practical interest-based diplomacy with Beijing risks intense backlash. Still, decoupling economically from China is not a viable option for South Korea’s export-oriented economy. Despite having some success in diversifying its exports away from the highly coveted Chinese market towards the rapidly growing ASEAN market, China remains the most important market for South Korean goods in the foreseeable future.

Beijing has, from its perspective, repeatedly demonstrated the desire to improve bilateral ties with South Korea. The December 2021 talks between China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yucheng, and his South Korean counterpart, Choi Jong-kun, are ostensibly evidence of China’s desire to enhance communication between the two countries.

Although a single meeting cannot be assigned too much importance, China’s deteriorating relations with Washington and its allies mean that such talks could enable Seoul to leverage its amicable ties with Beijing to advance mutual interests. Indeed, an advisor to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Jia Qingguo, coincidentally urged China to ‘make more friends and fewer enemies’ and improve its ties with major powers and neighbours.

Under these circumstances, Beijing would welcome a ‘reset’ between China and South Korea, lest the focus of the US-South Korea alliance is broadened beyond North Korea to China. While it might be unrealistic for Seoul to completely sever itself from Washington’s global geostrategy, Beijing and Seoul could still reach a modus vivendi on South Korea’s contribution to the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and its future relationship with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Seoul should also review the wisdom of embedding itself too firmly in the US alliance system. South Korea is a quintessential middle power, playing an important role in securing international trade and supplying high-tech goods like semiconductors. But it will only gain more autonomy in international relations when it learns to abandon its one-dimensional outlook on China and embrace a more multidimensional type of diplomacy.

Whether policymakers in South Korea can play a deft hand in maximising Seoul’s bargaining power in relations with both Beijing and Washington remains unclear. Keen to loosen Washington’s hegemonic grip over the Asia-Pacific, Beijing would most certainly welcome any South Korean actions that put a dent in the containment strategy led by the United States.

Sangpil Jin is Assistant Professor in Korean studies at the University of Copenhagen.