S Korean trade, diplomacy trending away from China – Asia Times

S Korean trade, diplomacy trending away from China - Asia Times

South Korea is reversing its dependence on China and boosting its multilateral ties with Washington and Tokyo. So far, Beijing appears uncertain of how to react, beyond calls for” assistance” and encouragement for Seoul to follow a non- aligned international policy.

A&nbsp, major measure&nbsp, of the effects of South Korea’s development in political arrangement is reflected in the change in South Korea’s trade relations: The United States became South Korea’s number one export destination in December 2023, surpassing China for the first time since 2004.

South Korea even experienced its first-ever bilateral trade deficit with China in 31 times, totaling US$ 18 billion. North Korean exports to China in 2023 dropped 20 % yr- on- time, to$ 124.8 billion, while imports from China dipped 8 % year- on- time, to$ 142.8 billion.

South Korea’s major conglomerates ‘ strong investment flows to the US have contributed to a rise in exports of South Korean cars, auto parts, and batteries. South Korea may have the distinction of being the only nation next to China for which China is not its number one trading partner if these trends continue.

Definitely affecting the bilateral relationship was &nbsp, the December 2023 announcement by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy of its 3050 Strategy initiative&nbsp, designed to stabilize South Korea’s supply chains and reduce dependence on China to less than 50 % by 2030.

The trade ministry’s efforts to lessen its reliance on China in its supply chains reflect a deeper understanding of South Korea’s vulnerability to potential Chinese economic retaliation.

The expansion of geostrategic conflict is undoubtedly a factor in the reconfiguration of political and economic ties in Northeast Asia.

South Korea appears to be eroding from China’s geoeconomic circle as South Korean investment in the US strengthens the Yoon administration’s geopolitical choices.

In the meantime, China’s diplomatic relations with Seoul have sputtered, more as a result of multilateral discussions between the two nations than from any sense of strategic intent.

China and South Korea continued to engage in ministerial and working-level economic dialogues on issues like supply chain stability, export controls, and trade facilitation, but these exchanges did not produce the traction needed for substantive bilateral discussions.

Additionally, the bilateral and trilateral foreign ministerial meetings held in Busan between South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and his counterparts Wang Yi and Kamikawa Yoko failed to produce sufficient momentum to set a date for the resumption of the China-Japan-South Korea summitry.

Mixed signals

Han and Xi meet. Photo: Chinese government

Han Duck-soo, the prime minister of South Korea’s first foreign visit in more than four years, led to expectations that Xi Jinping would make his first trip to Seoul since 2014.

Han requested China’s support for South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan and for the Yoon administration’s “audacious initiative” toward North Korea.

Xi emphasized&nbsp, the importance of “friendly cooperation” and expressed hope that South Korea” will work with China in the same direction, ]and ] take policies and actions that can reflect the importance it attaches to the development of China- ROK relations…”

However, Liaoning University Professor Lü Chao stated&nbsp, in the&nbsp, Global Times&nbsp, that political tensions generated by President Yoon’s pro- US approach and statements regarding Taiwan had “become a significant barrier to revive the three- way cooperation mechanism” between China, Japan, and South Korea.

Another development that has an impact on the bilateral China-South Korea relationship was the announcement of a joint US-South Korea effort to combat disinformation.

The US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Liz Allen’s visit to Seoul in December, which reflected South Korea’s concerns about false propaganda and global disinformation campaigns, was the occasion of the signing of the US- South Korea memorandum of understanding.

In light of reports that the Chinese Ministry of State Security ( MoS ) attempted to hack South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and hacked the Presidential Office’s computer network while Moon Jae was in office ( 2017- 22 ), the signing of the MOU is even more noteworthy.

Missed opportunities

National leaders have long had the opportunity to hold summit meetings at annual ASEAN and APEC meetings, such as those held by Yoon and Xi at the G20 Summit in Bali in November 2022. However, the APEC meeting in San Francisco in November 2023 only led to an exchange of greetings between Xi and Yoon.

Similar to how Xi’s willingness to travel to Seoul was demonstrated in his meeting with Han, South Korea’s efforts to host the first leader-level trilateral meeting with China and Japan failed to succeed in 2023.

On the eve of the ASEAN and G20 summits in early September, President Yoon and Premier Li Qiang had two quick encounters. Yoon expressed hope that the North Korean nuclear issue would not be an&nbsp, obstacle&nbsp, to improved China- South Korea relations. &nbsp, Premier Li emphasized&nbsp, the need to expand cooperation to” seek mutual benefit and win- win results”.

Chinese scholar Zhan Debin&nbsp, has laid out&nbsp, the obstacles to the realization of a trilateral summit in a&nbsp, Global Times&nbsp, column pointedly titled” South Needs to Prove Sincerity for China- Japan- SK Summit”. The article refutes the claim that South Korea will be able to win more respect from China because of its closer ties with the US and Japan, arguing that the country has instead weakened its “autonomy.”

Second, Zhan points to Yoon’s disavowal of the Moon- era” three nos and one restriction” understanding regarding THAAD missile defense and its disregard for Chinese “red lines” on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Xinjiang. It would be better not to hold the meeting at all if South Korea is pushing for the China, Japan, and South Korea trilateral talks because of US instructions, according to Zhan.

Trying trilateral summitry

China took part in the trilateral senior officials ‘ meeting in Seoul in late September and meetings with ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin despite such rhetoric. Those meetings were accompanied by a more optimistic tone from the&nbsp, Global Times, emphasizing the unchanged framework of “gain from cooperation, lose from confrontation” stemming from economic interdependence, economic development, and close geographical and cultural ties.

However, &nbsp, Chinese commentators responded&nbsp, negatively to the virtual US- Japan- South Korea defense ministerial meeting in mid- November alongside the US- South Korea Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul.

Lu Chao, a professor at Liaoning University, suggested that increased American-Japan-South Korea military cooperation following the Camp David Summit contributed to a worsening of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, Li Haidong of China Foreign Affairs University claimed that these ties would increase the tensions in Korea’s security situation.

On the heels of the trilateral China, Japan, and South Korea foreign ministers ‘ meeting in Busan at the end of November, Park Jin and Wang Yi met. The&nbsp, South Korean readout&nbsp, from the bilateral meeting emphasized joint efforts to strengthen mutual understanding, strengthen strategic communication, and contribute to regional and global peace and prosperity through economic cooperation, promotion of people- to- people exchanges, and restoring and normalizing cooperation among China, Japan, and South Korea.

The Chinese readout reported&nbsp, Wang’s description&nbsp, of changes in the international and regional landscapes and their impact on China- South Korea relations in greater detail. Wang argued that cooperation is the only way to create a mutually trustworthy and respectful relationship, noting that” China and the ROK are neighbors… and this objective fact will never change.”

Chinese and South Korean readouts of the trilateral meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa emphasized efforts to institutionalize cooperation through a trilateral leader-level summit as soon as possible and to deepen substantive trilateral cooperation.

In addition to the foreign ministerial meeting, the three countries&nbsp, successfully hosted&nbsp, the 16th trilateral health ministers ‘ meeting in early December, the first time the gathering had been held in four years.

Shifting regional orientation&nbsp,

It’s still to be seen how China responds to closer ties with Japan and South Korea, and whether China will rekindle a “win-win” relationship between the three nations, with a focus on Tokyo and Seoul demonstrating more strategic autonomy, or whether the Camp David Summit will put pressure on China to expand its influence in the area.

With Yoon in office until 2027, Seoul’s emphasis on closer trilateral cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, as well as on reducing dependency on China’s market, appears likely to continue. Beijing’s ties may have deteriorated significantly by then, even if a friendlier president has taken office, if Beijing does not take a more diplomatic stance toward the ROK.

Scott Snyder ( ssnyder@keia .org ) will assume the role of president of the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington, DC, in April 2024 and is a senior advisor for Pacific Forum. See- Won Byun ( [email protected] ) is an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.

This article was originally published by Pacific Forum, and it is now available for resale with permission. The article summarizes the authors ‘ chapter in the January 2024 issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety&nbsp,