November 01, 2017 13:19
South Korea and China agreed Tuesday to normalize diplomatic ties frayed by the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery from the U.S. here and the enduing unofficial boycott of South Korean business there. The two foreign ministries posted a joint statement on their websites and said the two presidents will meet on the sidelines of APEC forum in Da Nang, Vietnam next week. They also raised the possibility of President Moon Jae-in visiting China before the end of this year. Relations with China are important because it is a necessary partner in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat and in trade. But the agreement does not contain a single line acknowledging that South Korea was the victim of the dispute. Instead it makes it look like the perpetrator.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a National Assembly hearing that the government is not considering the deployment of additional THAAD systems and will not join the U.S.-led missile defense shield. She also said that the security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan will not turn into a trilateral military alliance. Did that commitment result from a deal made with China?
Seoul chose to let the U.S. deploy the THAAD battery here due to the growing missile threat from North Korea. It is not aimed at China and would be ineffective if it was. It is South Korea's sovereign right to defend itself. Seoul never protested against China's deployment of radar systems capable of snooping on its own military, whereas China's THAAD retaliation was an violation of South Korea's sovereign rights. If it ignores that, it makes itself vulnerable to more bullying from China.
The government virtually promised China it will not deploy any more THAAD batteries, even though that deployment was not a choice but a necessity. One THAAD system can defend only a third of South Korea's territory, and experts say at least two more are needed. Any government must first consider its responsibility for the safety of its people. How can it promise another country that it will not bring in more versions of a particular weapon that would be crucial to that responsibility?
Seoul already cooperates with Japan and the U.S. in dealing with North Korea and does not need to expand that framework into a military alliance. But if it wants to, it is perfectly within its rights to do so and does not need permission from China. China has become more brazen in its global ambitions ever since President Xi Jinping came to power. There is no telling how Northeast Asian politics will change, and South Korea could end up being threatened even more by Chinese dominance than North Korean weapons. The government must take a long-term view to this problem.
China suffered no damage from the latest dispute since the THAAD battery was not aimed at it. But Korean businesses suffered massive losses in China estimated at more than US$10 billion. They were a direct result of boycotts and chicanery from China that shamelessly violated international standards. But China did not even apologize, let alone promise to make amends. The South Korean government hardly even made efforts to lodge a protest. In fact, Seoul just seems grateful that China's ire has run its course.
China is an important partner, but partners need to respect each other's sovereignty and make sure bilateral ties are conducted in a normal framework. If not, Seoul remains exposed to further retaliation whenever Beijing is miffed about something and decides to resort to such strong-arm tactics again. Seoul needs to set a better precedent.
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