China and South Korea: Convergence or Conflict of Interests?


2012-11-11 by Richard Weitz

The close alignment between Seoul and Washington in recent years has reinforced Beijing’s caution about breaking with the DPRK.

The PRC and South Korea established formal diplomatic relations in 1992. Since then, their economic exchanges have soared, with China overtaking the United States as the ROK’s main trading partner.

Military-to-military visits and other exchanges have also blossomed.

PRC theorists conceive of their maritime defensive perimeter via the first and second “island chain.” Credit Image; DOD 

In addition, South Korean officials have supported China’s uncharacteristically vigorous efforts to help resolve the crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Yet, tight ROK-U.S. ties have reinforced PRC fears that the DPRK’s collapse would be swiftly followed by an extension of the ROK-US alliance northward.

Would the NATO experience be replicated as NATO moved its defenses eastward into the countries that broke free of Moscow’s control in the 1990s.

In response, the PRC has not challenged the DPRK’s interpretations of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, relaxed its enforcement of international sanctions against the DPRK, and hosted DPRK leader Kim Jong-il on multiple visits.

Beijing’s policy of returning DPRK refugees caught in the PRC to severe punishment, if not death, in the North also remains a source of bilateral tension.

Cooperative Initiatives

In 2011, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang met with South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik to discuss bilateral relations and regional peace.

Li expressed China’s willingness to further enhancing exchanges in various sectors and promoting bilateral ties at higher levels. In particular, he offered a four–point proposal to develop Beijing-Seoul relations:

•           Maintain high-level contacts and improve political mutual trust by stepping up exchanges and cooperation between governments, legislative bodies, and political parties.

•           Deepen trade ties by enhancing macroeconomic policy coordination and promoting cooperation in key areas like finance, logistics, high-technology, energy-saving and environmental protection as well as expanding bilateral currency swaps and pursue the start of inter-governmental talks on free trade zone as soon as possible.

•           Expand cultural and people-to-people exchanges and consolidate the social foundation for the bilateral friendship.

•           Strengthen coordination on multilateral occasions and reinforce cooperation within the ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea (10+3) mechanism and the integration of East Asia.

His South Korean counterpart proposed bilateral cooperation in such sectors as electronic information, biology, environmental protection, and new energy sources.

These discussions continued in 2012.

From January 9-11, ROK President Lee visited Beijing and met with President Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao, and top legislator Wu Bangguo. Later in March 2012, the two presidents conferred on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.

At this meeting, Hu put forward a three-point proposal with a view to bringing their bilateral relationship to a higher level, which included increased focus on strengthening mutual political and strategic trust by increasing high level contacts and communication on bilateral and major regional and international issues of common concern, expanding pragmatic cooperation and strengthening economic and trade ties by increasing cross-border investment in major sectors and promotion of cultural exchanges.

Seoul has adopted a neutral and low-keyed stance regarding Beijing’s maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.

Conflicting Interests

Despite these lofty goals and their expanding commercial ties, China and South Korea remain divided by several issues.

PRC officials have still not blamed the DPRK for the Cheonan attack, criticized the artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, or demanded an end to its uranium enrichment program.

Tensions persist over their historical relationship.

Chinese historians challenge Korean claims to cite lineage to the ancient Koguryo (Goguryeo) Kingdom (37 BC-AD 668) as an independent political entity, claiming that Koguryo remained under the sovereignty of various Chinese dynasties.

Koreans fear that China’s interpretation reflects an offensive strategy either to gain Korean territory after reunification or to influence the character of the northern portion of a reunified Korea to protect its national interests.

Conversely, the Chinese may fear that a reunited Korea could lay claim to ethnically or historically parts of China.

A more pressing territorial dispute is PRC fishing in the Yellow Sea, which is located between the Korean Peninsula and Mainland China.

Quotas have been established between China, Japan, and South Korea that limit and demarcate fishing in these areas.

However, Chinese fishermen have increasingly encroached into the ROK’s declared exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and territorial waters. The South Korean Coast Guard seized some 430 PRC vessels in 2011 alone for fishing in the ROK’s declared share of the Yellow Sea. The Chinese fishing boats sometimes use violence to resist these detentions, which PRC authorities consider illegal since Beijing contests the extent of Seoul’s territorial claims.

The nine-dotted line used by China for its claim to the South China Sea. 

The death of a ROK Coast Guard officer in December 2011 and Beijing’s unapologetic response highlighted how China’s expansive maritime claims and activities were now affecting the ROK as well as the PRC’s ASEAN neighbors and Japan. Subsequent clashes in April resulted in four more ROK Coast Guard officers being injured as they tried to detain Chinese boats suspected of illegal fishing.

On video on Armored Chinese Fishing Boat Thwarts South Korean Coast Guard see the following:

Another maritime dispute between China and South Korea is over an uninhabited rock formation in a part of the Yellow Sea located in the declared EEZs of both the PRC and the ROK.

The PRC has objected to the South Korean research station that the ROK constructed there in 2006. The spat over what South Korea calls the Leodo Reef and China refers to as the Suyan Reef subsequently reignited after the PRC’s State Oceanic Administration chief declared that the uninhabited rock formation was part of China’s ”jurisdictional waters” and covered by its maritime patrols. The PRC’s expansive claims to other maritime bodies, such as in the South China Sea, could also threaten the ROK’s vital maritime lifelines.

Beijing’s treatment of North Korean refugees is another source of bilateral tensions.

The PRC authorities may quietly allow defectors who take shelter in the South Korean embassy or consulate in China to go to South Korea, but those captured elsewhere are sent back to the North, as required by Chinese laws and agreements with North Korea. Official PRC policy treats all North Koreans who enter Chinese policy without permission as economic migrants. A bilateral treaty requires Chinese authorities to repatriate them to the DPRK. In 2012, the PRC and ROK foreign ministries engaged in a public spat over PRC plans to repatriate dozens on DPRK refugees, with South Korea eventually taking the case to the UN Human Rights Council. A more recent crisis between Beijing and Seoul is China’s prolonged detention and alleged torture of Kim Young-hwan, a prominent South Korean democracy activist who has been seeking to help North Koreans escape from the DPRK.

Public surveys show that these tensions and conflicts have adversely affected popular perceptions of the bilateral relationship, with both South Koreans and Chinese expressing an increasingly less favorable opinion of the other.

According to one poll, many more South Koreans see China, rather than Japan, as the main security threat that would confront a reunified Korea.

According to another poll, whereas 67% of the South Korean respondents favored strong U.S. leadership in global affairs, almost equal numbers disapproved of strong Chinese or Russian leadership in world affairs. Part of the reason for the resurging popularity of the United States among South Koreans may be their rising fear of China’s military power, which is seen as threatening by some 75 percent of the respondents.

Neither China nor North Korea represents a direct military threat to the other, but they have defense ties with third parties that worry the other side.

Six decades of conflicts between China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, United States, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The circles represent the number of conflicts by countries, and the lines links the countries in conflicts. 


Beijing’s strong support for Pyongyang is a constant source of tension, seen most recently in South Korean irritation at China’s refusal to join the international outrage against DPRK’s unprovoked 2010 attacks against the ROK.

Meanwhile, PRC policy makers worry how the ROK has deepened its military ties with the United States in recent years and fear a possible strengthening of ROK-Japanese security relations.

They believe that South Korea is seeking to bolster these defense ties at least in part to counter China.

For example, PRC analysts perceive the enlargement and modernization of a U.S. naval base on Jeju Island as designed to strengthen U.S. regional defenses against China rather than enhancing South Korea’s security against North Korea.

They have been especially irritated by the joint ROK-U.S. military exercises. Not only do they fear that the DPRK might escalate in response, but they also consider the U.S. military activities a potential threat to eastern China. For instance, the joint exercises in the Yellow Sea threaten a vital waterway for China’s east coast cities and industries.

The ROK is also acquiring longer-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in parts of China as well as all of North Korea. (The ROK already possesses a slower-moving cruise missile with such a range.) The ROK government has also decided to accelerate its timetable for purchasing advanced stealth fighter planes.

PRC officials have responded by reinforcing China’s own security ties with Pyongyang since the DPRK serves as a useful territorial buffer between the ROK-U.S. military bloc and Chinese territory.

It is also viewed as a means of diverting South Korean and American defense and diplomatic resources from concentrating on containing China.

It might require a weakening of U.S.-ROK defense ties, perhaps under a future South Korean government less committed to widening the scope of their bilateral defense ties, for Beijing to feel more comfortable about siding with Seoul against Pyongyang.