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(News Focus) THAAD weighing down China ties, not relationship breaker: analysts

2016/08/23 16:27

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Aug. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and China will likely mark their 24th anniversary of establishing formal diplomatic ties on a subdued note this week as Seoul's decision to place a U.S. advanced missile defense system on its soil has chilled two-way relations, observers and experts said Tuesday.

They, however, expected that the issue over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula is by no means a relationship breaker, despite strong opposition from Beijing, and expressed hope that they will eventually find a way out of the awkward situation.

In July, South Korea and the United States unveiled a plan to station a THAAD battery on the peninsula by end-2017 to counter growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. China has strongly objected to the plan on worries that it would undermine its strategic security interests, while Seoul has stressed that the missile defense shield poses no threat to neighboring countries and is solely centered on dealing with Pyongyang.

China's state-run media has been leading the so-called "Korea bashing" with major newspapers using harsh words to criticize the Seoul government. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier blamed the South for hurting mutual trust with the deployment decision.

International relations experts said that ties have been frayed with some even worrying that the Seoul-Beijing connection that had been carefully cultivated over the years has hit its lowest ebb since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations on Aug. 24, 1992.

Private sector observers here share the concern that strained ties between South Korea and China could have a negative impact on many areas.

They, however, noted that the current spat over the THAAD issue will not undermine the bilateral ties to the point where it would be hard to rebuild trust.

"There is no doubt that South Korea-China relations are not like before," a source in Beijing said on condition of anonymity. "But given that both countries have a free trade agreement in place and complement each other in many areas, including the economy and culture, they will eventually find a way out of this."

   He pointed out that both countries have built up ties on diverse fronts that are strong enough to withstand any ramifications from even important diplomatic disagreements.

Last year, bilateral trade volume between the two reached US$227.3 billion, with China accounting for 31.8 percent of South Korea's total trade, according to industrial data. South Korea's investment in China surpassed that of Japan for the first time in eight years in 2015. For China, South Korea is its third-largest trading partner.

It also seems that the diplomatic spat over THAAD has not spilled over much into other areas, including tourism and cultural exchanges, as many Chinese media have feared or threatened.

Reflecting this, the number of Chinese visiting South Korea through an airport in the country's southeastern city of Daegu in the month following the July THAAD decision, spiked by tenfold compared with the same period a year earlier.

What is more worrisome, however, is the impact the advanced missile shield has on the united front to counter North Korea. China's cooperation is seen as a key element to the ongoing global effort to penalize Pyongyang for its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and its missile programs.

Against this backdrop, there was a recent report that Beijing eventually blocked the U.N. Security Council from adopting a statement accusing the North of conducting missile provocations, trying in vain to reflect its opposition to THAAD. South Korea immediately voiced regret and urged Beijing to fulfill its responsibility as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

The general public here seems to have shared similar concern about possible retaliation by China.

A survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a local research institute, showed that 71.8 percent of those polled said there is a possibility that China could take retaliatory action. About 70 percent worried that THAAD will have a "negative" impact on bilateral ties between South Korea and China.

Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher who led the survey speculated that China does not want THAAD to be a major issue that hampers its ties with South Korea forever. He argued that Beijing will not keep bashing South Korea to the point where it leaves a scar.

"For China, it is in its national interest to stay on good terms with both South and North Korea. ... In that sense, the current situation is not good for China either," he said. "The THAAD row cannot go on forever. It would be practical to try to find a way out of this by trying to change the subject back to the North's nuclear program again.

"(THAAD) is not something that would end the Seoul-Beijing ties," he said. "We have to make China understand that the North's nuclear program is behind the problem and try to provide it with a face-saving chance in which it can get out of the THAAD issue and move back toward denuclearization."

   Woo hoped that the upcoming Group of 20 countries' summit to be held in China early next month, where leaders of the two countries could meet and exchange views, will offer a solution to the present situation.