South Korea and China mark 20 years of diplomatic relations on Friday. On Aug. 24, 1992, foreign minister Lee Sang-ok and his Chinese counterpart Chen Chien-jen signed a pact normalizing diplomatic relations at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing. The two countries, which fought against each other during the 1950-53 Korean War, at last formed diplomatic ties and broke down the walls of the Cold War in Northeast Asia.
Bilateral trade, which amounted to US$6.4 billion in 1992 increased 35-fold to $220.6 billion last year. That is more than South Korea's bilateral trade with the U.S. and Japan combined. Every year, more than 5 million South Koreans and Chinese visit the other country. Bilateral relations were elevated from a "cooperative partnership" in 1997 to a "comprehensive cooperative partnership" in 2003 and a "strategic cooperative partnership" in 2008. As those terms suggest, bilateral relations have evolved to encompass cooperation not only in issues involving the two countries but regional and global ones.
But relations began to show signs of strain in 2010. South Koreans were outraged when China appeared to side with North Korea after the North sank the Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010. Ever since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum that Washington would intervene actively in disputes in the South China Sea, America's diplomatic focus has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region. Against the backdrop of the U.S. moving to stem China's rising influence in Northeast Asia, Washington has called on Seoul and Tokyo to play a bigger role in the region, and that has made Beijing more wary. As inter-Korean relations soured, South Korea's dependence on its alliance with the U.S. and Japan has grown stronger and China cannot help but view such developments as moves to keep it in check.
China shares borders with 14 countries, which creates a complicated set of relations. It accounts for a great share of South Korea's export revenues, but South Korea is just one of China's allies. This means there are limits to what Seoul can persuade to China to do.
The next 20 years in relations will be crucial in the fate of South Korea, bringing challenges such as Korean reunification. South Korea-China relations move in sync with inter-Korean and U.S.-South Korean relations, and Seoul has limited options when it comes to using its ties with Beijing to achieve its goals. Yet it must try to steer Seoul-Beijing relations in a direction that best meets its national interests. That requires long-term vision and decisiveness. They are among the most important things Koreans must consider when they choose their next leader.