The 3 Faces of China

      February 24, 2011 07:29


      China has shown three different faces in relations with South Korea. The first is the smiling face of bilateral cooperation since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992. The second is a brazen face it showed when it stood by North Korea despite mounting international criticism after the North's armed provocations against the South. The third is a threatening face, which had been hidden in the past 20 years of diplomatic relations but began to emerge after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in March last year.

      China's open threats to South Korea are backed by its rapid rise in power. Outpacing Japan in terms of GDP in 2010, China is expected to overtake the U.S. economy in 2022, and South Korean companies face the prospect of having to find a survival plan as their Chinese rivals become global magnets of capital, technology and products.

      The rising power of China can be felt throughout South Korean society. There are more than 30,000 South Korean companies with operations in China, and it is difficult to fine one without relations with China. Annual trade volume amounts to US$200 billion, 20 times what it was in 1992 at the start of diplomatic relations. China holds W4 trillion (US$1=W1,123) worth of South Korean government bonds, and its economic policies now have a direct impact on the South Korean economy.

      Every week 840 flights connect the two countries, while around 6 million people visit each other's countries every year. Around 1.5 million Chinese tourists flock to South Korea annually, and some wealthy Chinese buy expensive real estate in South Korea. Some 60,000 Chinese students in South Korea make up the largest portion of foreign students studying here. A growing number of South Korean schoolchildren are learning Chinese. Language academies targeting adults are also booming, and Chinese-language kindergartens are doing brisk business.

      But the close and active exchanges taking place in the private sector are not echoed by the South Korean government, which has been slow to react. Seoul has been especially apathetic in diplomatic connections even though it stands to lose the most from a diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and China. It has become imperative for South Korea to bolster its diplomatic capacity so that officials can meet China's top policy makers to explain Seoul's position and win support, but there are no China experts among high-ranking officials at the Foreign Ministry and in the diplomatic and national security divisions at Cheong Wa Dae. Chinese diplomats complain that the Lee Myung-bak administration favors only Washington and gives them short shrift.    

      Moon Heung-ho, a China expert at Hanyang University, said, "It remains unclear whether Seoul has a grand strategy to deal with China becoming one of the world's top two economies." From a political science perspective, the government needs to pursue a balanced approach in dealing with the U.S. and China, while engaging North Korea. And it needs to stick to its principles when China flexes its diplomatic muscle. The public and private sector together must come up with a long-term plan to ensure the competitiveness of Korean products in an era of Chinese domination. The future of the country depends on how this survival plan is implemented in the 21st century.

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