Global Pairings

China-South Korea: Misguided Romance in East Asia?

Just how serious is this fledgling romance between Seoul and Beijing?

Credit: ruskpp -


  • Closer relations between South Korea and China are a telltale sign that US influence in the region is waning.
  • China is not part of the TPP negotiations, but it continues to push for an alternative regional trade regime.
  • Ever-growing economic ties between Beijing and Seoul are worrying many in Washington.
  • Washington understands that Japan is the most reliable and effective ally for the US in the Asia-Pacific region.

Knowing who your friends are isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to diplomacy. At the same time, the stakes in shaping friendships in East Asia have not been as high as they are now since at least the end of the Second World War.

There undoubtedly is a bitter chill in the air when it comes to South Korea’s relations with Japan. But while Seoul’s ties to Tokyo may be prickly at best, South Korea’s relations with Beijing are beginning to blossom.

Meanwhile, both Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye have been in power for nearly two years. Even so, they have not yet had a face-to-face talk.

Worse, they have no plans to do so any time soon. That is a strange situation, not least because both countries consider themselves faithful U.S. allies.

In contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping visited Seoul in July, marking the two presidents’ fifth face-to-face meeting. Following the latest summit discussion, the two sides announced that they aim to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement by the end of this year which would bolster two-way trade to $300 billion.

But just how serious is this fledgling romance between Seoul and Beijing? And how will it affect the two countries’ neighbors?

A double-edged sword for Seoul?

The possibility of a free trade agreement between South Korea and China soon would certainly strengthen ties between the world’s second-largest economy and one of the region’s most economically robust nations.

But will what is an obvious boon for growth for both sides in the near term potentially be a double-edged sword for Seoul, as it navigates the choppy waters of diplomatic relations?

For one, there is concern in the international community that a trade pact between China and South Korea would further strengthen ties between the two countries that have increasingly been able to set aside their differences as they eye issues of mutual interests. This, in turn, may give further clout to China.

Apart from enhancing trade relations, Beijing and Seoul are also working to allow a direct exchange of the Chinese yuan and Korean won. That would bolster the Chinese currency’s status on the global stage.

Closer relations between South Korea and China are a telltale sign that U.S. influence in the region is waning, especially on the economic front.

The fact that the United States has not been able to move forward in its trade efforts in Asia, via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, contrasts sharply with Beijing’s ability to bolster its own influence in the region.

The US drags its feet and China pushes on

This is all the more significant as the TPP is the sole multilateral trade agreement that the United States is negotiating in the world’s most economically robust region.

And while the pact ambitiously hopes to set new global trading standards, bickering within the U.S. Congress and spats over tariffs on a slew of politically sensitive products from rice to cars have kept the 12 TPP member nations from coming anywhere near an agreement any time soon.

As for China, it is not part of the TPP negotiations, but it continues to be actively involved in pushing for an alternative regional trade regime in the form of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. This envisaged agreement includes South Korea and Japan, but notably not the United States.

Under those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that ever-growing economic ties between Beijing and Seoul are worrying many in Washington. They fear that it will lead to broader cooperation between the two countries, including on security issues.

Japan as a spoiler?

That, however, can be an opportunity for Tokyo to muscle in and play up to Washington’s worries. Closer Sino-Korean ties are certainly being viewed with concern in Japan. South Korea’s latest moves are seen as putting the break on the once much-hoped for trilateral trade agreement between China, South Korea and Japan.

On the other hand, a rapidly intensifying relationship between Seoul and Beijing can also be used by Tokyo as an opportunity to push forward an understanding in Washington that Japan remains the single most reliable and effective ally for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region – and the one that will not waver toward China.

For Seoul, though, the fact remains that its attraction to Beijing is a pragmatic one, based in large part on economic interests. After all, as is the case with Japan, South Korea’s military alliance with the United States remains at the heart of its security strategy.

And South Korea’s free trade agreement with the United States two years ago is viewed as a cornerstone of success in furthering its foothold as an economic powerhouse. From that perspective, the rapprochement with China may simply be understood as a rounding out of South Korea’s options.

Who will benefit most?

However, there is also a sense of caution in Seoul over the fact that any trade deal with Beijing would ultimately primarily benefit China, as Korea’s reliance on Beijing’s economic might simply continues to grow.

To balance against such dependence, closer ties between Japan and South Korea would be important strategically.

They would provide not only greater regional stability (to offset the rise of China’s military presence as well as continued threats from North Korea), but they would also provide for economic expansion in the longer term.

For that to happen, Tokyo and Seoul have to overcome their longstanding animosities. Economic expansion is no longer the single biggest driving force in East Asia.

Rather, ensuring political clout that matches their economic prowess is equally important for Japan and South Korea as well as China. Such rivalry, though, can be fraught with tension.

Setting aside differences regarding history in particular is no easy task, but it would make a great deal of sense for both sides to focus on their common interests, not to mention joint values.

Both Japan and South Korea need political stability above all else to ensure continued economic growth. Both nations also face similar challenges of securing energy resources, dealing with a decreasing population and redefining strategies that would secure longer-term economic expansion.

They are also confronting the challenge of China’s rise and North Korea’s uncertain outlook.

By working together to confront mutual challenges head-on, it would also make U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific stronger, as well as ensure greater stability in the region. The key question, though, is whether the political leaders of Japan and South Korea will manage to get closer to each other.

Much is happening in Asia, not least the warming of relations between India and Japan. It would be unfortunate for regional balance if Japan and South Korea did not find the path to warmer ties.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Washington, D.C, United States]

Responses to “China-South Korea: Misguided Romance in East Asia?”

Archived Comments.

  1. On September 11, 2014 at 2:50 am Vincent Lee responded with... #

    Before i even begin to comment on your mis-guided and ill-informed article, let me ask you a question, Ms. Goto. Do you believe the existence of Comfort Women – forced sex labor by the imperial Japanese Army in its hegemonious times ? Ask Mr. Abe and please tell us what his answer is. Maybe then you’ll begin to understand one aspect why S. Korea and China are getting closer, and neither is warmng to Japan. And then why do I get the feeling from you that China has to gain at S. Korea’s expense by their having this bilateral free-trade pact ?? S. Korea gains access to a huge and growing consumer market in China, and you think the S. Korea government doesn’t know that? Finally, why don’t you wake up from that Cold War mentality and think in modern terms. Does an inch gained by China has to be an inch lost by America (or world peace)? If S. Korea becomes a good friend of China and has lots of mutual businesses and interests, don’t you think China will reign in N. Korea, lending More instead of less peace to the Korean peninsula? Ah, as for how the S. Korea – China pact will affect Japan, that’s another story. You ought to study more about history and geopolitics before writing another article, please.

  2. On September 11, 2014 at 6:51 am George Bruce responded with... #

    Excellent analysis of the 3 Asian Pacific powerhouses, they all share global economic influence. China continues with its agenda both economic as well as militarily. In my view its a battle of Ego, as far as China the Sleeper has Awaken! Great work, continue to monitor the battle for Global Dominance keep us informed. Remember the Big Fish eat the Little fish.

  3. On September 11, 2014 at 10:17 am Vincent Lee responded with... #

    Before I can even start to comment on your misguided, misleading, and biased article, let me just first ask you a simple question, Ms. Goto, especially since you seem to be female. Do you think the matter of Comfort Women – the systematic sexual enslavement of women in conquested land by the hegemonious Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930’s and 40’s, really existed or not ? Would you mind asking the Japanese prime minister, Mr. Shinzo Abe, the same question, and tell us the answer ? Did it occur to you that his refusal to frankly admit to this particular aspect of Japan’s dark history (among others, I might add) is one of the reasons that while South Korea and China are warming up to each other, neither is warming towards Japan? Or are you deliberately downplaying it, calling it simply “differences regarding history”? Such laps of memory, or such clever maneuver of words?
    You mentioned South Korea’s decision to sign a free-trade deal with China is a “pragmatic one” based in large part on economic interests. Then you say many in Washington is concerned that a closer relation between the two countries will lead to broader cooperation between them, including on security issues. So what exactly which is which ? And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that if there is more security that arises out of a co-operation between S. Korea and China, that has to be a more stable Korea Pensinsula. What’s wrong with that ?? Does a more secure S. Korea benefit only China ??
    Would you please reset your brain from that cold-war mentality and rethink again? Your entire article is full of this kind of zero-sum, strategic alarm against China. Does an inch of gain by China have to mean an inch of loss by the United States? I must admit though, that if that is how you keep on boxing yourself in, that will unforunately become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why do you have to “confront” to China’s rise, instead of embracing it and make good use of it? 1.3 billion consumers getting rich has got to mean a lot of business for American companies and a lot of jobs for Americans. Apple is selling i-phones in China like hot cakes. You see something wrong with that?
    China has never ever threatened to invade California, its army has never laid boots in Alaska, and it has never bombed Hawaii. What are you afraid of ?
    I suggest that you study Asian history a lot more closely before writing another, more constructive article, please.

  4. On September 11, 2014 at 4:42 pm Patrick KT responded with... #

    Conceptually, a closer South Korea-Japan relations make sense. But in reality, this is extremely difficult. Korea and Japan are true classic historical rivals (like Britain and France and probably even more so) that goes beyond WW2 or Japan occupation of Korean peninsula. It is a rivalry that goes back at least 1500 years. Geography, culture and history makes any real alliance almost impossible.

  5. On September 12, 2014 at 8:44 pm qiuwei responded with... #

    this article is written without an understanding as to why Korea is taking such step. Korea has ask for US to assure Korea’s control of Dokdo island which is recognise by the US as Korean territory, despite the reality that US does consider Dokdo island, Korean territory. US was unwilling to do so in fear of upsetting Japan…

    when you have an ally that is unwilling to say your territory belongs to you, what is the point of having such an ally?

    Thus immediately after US refusal, Korea went to China. this is the mistake US made, it values Japan over its alliances with other and for that, US will pay the price. this is a diplomatic error of US, Korea would have no need to seek new ally if US had acted reliably…

  6. On September 12, 2014 at 10:59 pm mickytrain responded with... #

    George Bruce, the big fish does not ALWAYS eat the little fish, there are many instances where the little fish benefits from the big fish, at the same time the big fish benefits from the little fish. lol, talking about China and its ego… only country with an ego is America.

  7. On September 13, 2014 at 12:36 am Vincent Lee responded with... #

    I would agree partially with qiuwei on this point of the U.S.’s refusal to recognize Dokdo as Korean Territory, promptly S. Korea to re-assess its ally-status with the U.S.; partially because one needs to realize that DESPITE the fact that S. Korea and China both have some Territorial disputes, both are nevetheless moving closer towards each other. Doesn’t it therefore reflect that the bilateral warming is not just a matter of territorial claim (or recognition by a ally), but somethig that’s deeper, more strategic ?

  8. On September 16, 2014 at 10:00 am qiuwei responded with... #

    you are correct that I intentionally left out some elements, however I have to correct something.

    China does not actually have territorial dispute with South Korea. China is bug by South Korea building a flag post on a submerged rock, but a submerged rock is not territory and cannot project maritime claim. the people who usually speak of the dispute are people who intend to misled the people.

    of course South Korea also has a use of China that is on the issue of DPRK. ROK understands that Korea unification will never happen if the 2 Korea are proxies of two different sides. and since they cannot change DPRK or US position. the rational approach is to shift itself into China’s sphere of influence and thus allowing unification. because if they were to fight on opposing sides, US and China will just enter the war and force a slatemate again, but if they were both in China’s sphere, then US won’t have a horse to intervene since US is unlikely to help DPRK this is a logical conclusion.

    this DPRK angle is well understood by Japan, this is why Japan is trying to arrange a meeting with DPRK leaders. however what can Japan do alone without US approval?

    other than those 2 angle, there is a 3rd angle which Japan has always understood since its existence. it was the very reason why they always wants to invaded Korea. as the saying goes Korea is “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan”. the nature of Korea will never change as this is a geographical reality.

    now why do I not state these points, because these were not the deal breaker, these conditions has always existed and had not changed, thus the one that changed, was what broke the deal for them. also my original point isn’t about territorial dispute, its about reliability. ROK need to feel it can depend on US, and that US can be a FAIR decider. that if US does not make a fair decision on something so minor, how can they depend on them in real issue of importance. thus it was a test, and US failed it.