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COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS

New Dawn For China-South Korea Relationship?

As tensions increase again on the Korean Peninsula, and China rethinking its rapport with Pyongyang, a reset could be in order between Seoul and Beijing.

Park Geun-Hye and China's Hu Jintao
Park Geun-Hye and China's Hu Jintao
Scott A. Snyder

Following an early ambassadorial visit and a courtesy call on President-elect Park Geun-hye from China’s special envoy Vice Minister Zhang Zhijun, Park has decided to reciprocate by sending her first special envoys to Beijing during the transition.

The exchange illustrates a mutual recognition that Sino-South Korean relations had deteriorated under Lee Myung-Bak and Hu Jintao and that Park and Xi have a chance to start out on the right foot this time. (See-Won Byun and I review the respective South Korean and Chinese leadership transitions over the last four months in detail here alongside parallel assessments of inter-Korean relations and U.S.-South Korea relations by Aidan Foster-Carter and Victor Cha and Ellen Kim.)

This early exchange shows that both sides are acutely aware that political problems in the China-South Korea relationship do not serve either country, especially given a bilateral trade relationship that reached $220 billion in 2011.

South Korea and China are natural economic partners, but North Korea continues to rear its head as a challenging sticking point between the two sides. Xi had already reached out to Kim Jong-un in late November through a visit to Pyongyang by sending as an envoy Li Jianguo, the secretary general of the standing committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress.

During Li’s meeting with Kim Jong-un (Kim’s second with Chinese visitors), he delivered a letter from Xi that pledged continuity of high-level exchanges and emphasized the importance of “strategic communication” between the two sides. However, it is not clear what sort of communication occurred regarding North Korea’s satellite launch plans, the announcement of which the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson greeted with concern only two days later. With South Korea now on the UN Security Council, the question of how to respond to North Korea’s defiance of security council resolutions could continue as a major source of difference in Sino-South Korean relations.

China is also attempting to put down some political markers with South Korea in other areas as well. China responded sensitively to public references at last October’s Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) to U.S.-South Korean consultations on missile defense cooperation and did not welcome the U.S. decision last October to permit South Korea to develop mid-range missile capabilities in response to North Korea’s growing threat. Former Chinese diplomat Yang Xiyu gave a rather pointed warning in a December 31 Korea Times interview that the U.S.-South Korea alliance should not be directed at China. China may try to use this metric as a way of pressuring South Korea to limit trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan, despite the fact that recent developments in U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral coordination have all occurred in direct response to successive North Korean provocations.

North Korean vulnerability

China has already partly succeeded, as sensitivity toward its position was reportedly a reason for South Korea’s postponement of plans to establish a military information sharing agreement with Japan. The question of whether the U.S.-South Korea alliance is anti-China also could be used to limit the development of Seoul's regional security relations in East Asia.

There is a strong rationale for China to improve relations with South Korea so as to consolidate its strategic position on the peninsula, especially given North Korea’s vulnerability. But will improved China-South Korea relations come at the expense of the United States and possibly at the expense of South Korea’s own longstanding interest in Korean reunification?

ROK relations with China and the United States are often framed in zero-sum terms, both in China and in South Korea. However, President-elect Park has expressed her intent to pursue a strong relationship with both China and the United States, and has shown no interest in weakening the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Thus, the test for China that is likely to determine the potential and limits for the Sino-South Korean relationship going forward will be whether China can accept and respect South Korean political and security interests on their own, or whether China’s view of Seoul will continue to be intermediated and constrained by other priorities in its management of relations with North Korea and the United States.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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