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Restoring Trust
The way forward for China-ROK relations
By Ling Shengli | NO. 1 JANUARY 4, 2018

ROK President Moon Jae-in visits a calligraphy and painting gallery in Beijing's Liulichang cultral district on December 15 (VCG)
Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), paid a state visit to China at the end of 2017, also his maiden trip to the neighboring country after taking office. With the series of outcomes achieved in Beijing during his visit on bilateral relations and the consensus reached on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue between the two countries, it is believed that China-ROK relations have been extricated from the "dark" situation in which they were stuck.

Ice-thawing trip

China and the ROK are friendly neighbors and important partners which have developed rapidly in many fields, particularly economic and trading cooperation, in the past 25 years since they established diplomatic ties. The bilateral ties have also leapfrogged from a cooperative partnership to a strategic partnership in a short period of time.

The two countries have common interests in social and economic progress, and in realizing regional peace, stability and prosperity. Although there are twists and turns, friendly exchanges and win-win cooperation are still the core part of their relations.

Nevertheless, obstacles exist between the two countries, such as unbalanced bilateral cooperation and insufficient mutual trust. Meanwhile, some external factors such as the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula also became barrier for the growing of China-ROK ties, resulting in a temporary stagnation starting from 2016.

Obviously, President Moon's Beijing trip aimed to bring the China-ROK relationship back to the right track. Besides having talks with Chinese leaders, Moon also undertook public relations activities such as delivering a speech at Peking University, having breakfast with local people and appreciating Chinese traditional culture in Beijing's cultural district. The series of arrangements in Beijing, to a certain degree, showcased bilateral effort to advance Beijing-Seoul ties.

Improving relations with China is conducive to both the ROK's domestic affairs and foreign relations. For Seoul, whether for boosting the ROK's economy or easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a sound China-ROK relationship is undoubtedly necessary. To that end, the two countries still need to further expand and deepen their interaction as well as learn lessons from the ups and downs of their relations for the sake of their long-term stable development.

Expansion of cooperation

Actually, before the THAAD deployment, a friendly atmosphere had been formed between China and the ROK as they have a wide range of areas in which to partner and frequent people-to-people exchanges. To break the current stalemate and look forward, the two countries must work harder to further advance their ties to a new stage under the guidance of a top-level strategic design by confirming the essence of their cooperation as follows.

The two countries should enhance economic partnership in key industries. For a long time, rapid economic development through their combined effort has been the foundation and driving force for China-ROK relations. China is the ROK's largest investment destination, and the ROK is China's third largest trading partner.

In spite of the less-than-positive relations between China and the ROK, their bilateral trade value still reached $225.88 billion in the first 10 months of 2017, with year-on-year growth of 11.4 percent, according to China's Ministry of Commerce, showcasing huge potential for bilateral economic cooperation. In their meeting in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and President Moon reached a consensus on further strengthening China-ROK unity in this regard.

In the future, the two countries should further reinforce their long-term economic partnership in major industries such as manufacture, telecommunications, renewable energy, environmental protection, tourism, and education. They should also expand areas to explore more potential in finance and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5th generation mobile networks and big data.

China and the ROK also need to strengthen the alignment of their strategic initiatives. As the whole world is deep in a transition phase, the question is, how can the two sides ensure a longstanding relationship between them without interference from external uncertainties? The ROK is willing to involve its own national strategies in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, to which China has responded positively, indicating a fresh start in their cooperation at a strategic level.

The two countries should attach importance to the establishment of a bilateral cooperation platform as a guarantee for the partnership. The China-ROK Free Trade Agreement is a good example that shows the significance of platform building. China and the ROK should create a seamless exchange atmosphere by continuing to build up collaboration mechanisms on investment, finance and environmental issues.

China and the ROK are two major parties for maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The two countries should further strengthen their cooperation on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. While sticking firmly to the principle of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, they should also enhance joint efforts to promote the settlement of the issue through dialogue as well as to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Lessons learned

In spite of the development of China-ROK relations progressing rapidly overall, some hidden dangers still exist. Thus, the two countries need to learn from past experience and lessons for the stable and smooth development of their bilateral relations.

China-ROK economic relations in the past 25 years have made remarkable achievements, but bilateral relations in political and security fields appear deficient in comparison. During Moon's Beijing visit, the state leaders of the two countries agreed to expand cooperation in the areas of not only economy and trade, but also diplomacy, security and inter-party relations, which indicates a more comprehensive partnership in the future.

Meanwhile, both countries should uphold the basic principle of respecting each other's core interests and major concerns. The ROK's decision to deploy the THAAD system has directly undermined China-ROK relations as the system constitutes a threat to China's strategic security.

Moon's visit is a positive move for easing the tension between the two countries, but it is still not enough to thoroughly settle the issue. During the meeting with Moon, President Xi reiterated China's stance on THAAD, requiring the ROK side to deal with it in a proper way.

The ROK side responded positively, pledging that it will not add to the existing THAAD system, not participate in a U.S.-led missile defense system, and not develop an ROK-U.S.-Japan military alliance. It also vowed to limit the use of the existing THADD system.

In short, the two sides have learned from this issue the lesson that the core interests of each other should be respected as a foundation for further development of their neighborhood

Besides, as China-ROK ties are easily affected by external factors such as actions by the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more trust-building measures and talks are needed between China and the ROK to develop their bilateral relations in a stable way over the long term.

High-level strategic guidance is essential to build up mutual trust, which can be realized through state visits, bilateral talks, phone calls and letters. On top of these methods, sincerity is a priority for the two neighbors. They should enhance their relations without interference from a third party and promote a strategic partnership that is dynamic and stable.

The author is an associate professor with China Foreign Affairs University

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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