Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye shake hands at APEC meeting, November 2014.
Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

On an uncharacteristically bright and clear day in June 2013, the newly inaugurated president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, arrived in Beijing for an official state visit. The Chinese government had pulled out all the stops to welcome her, running effusive articles in the state media about her Mandarin skills and her love of Chinese culture, and clearing the normally polluted Beijing sky to ensure a picture-perfect arrival. South Koreans were thrilled by their neighbors’ enthusiasm; South Korean media covered every aspect of Park’s trip and detailed the exceptional treatment their president was receiving. Meanwhile, pundits in the United States and elsewhere worried that it was the beginning of South Korea’s tilt toward China and away from the U.S. alliance system in Asia. 

Yet despite such predictions, China has over the past three years failed to cultivate influence with South Korea, a neighbor that both sought China’s friendship and continues to depend on the Chinese market. This failure was not inevitable. It resulted largely from Beijing’s self-absorbed approach to diplomacy, specifically on the issue of North Korea. Seoul’s July announcement of its intention to deploy a U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) on South Korean territory, delivered despite strenuous objections and even threats from Beijing, was a recent reminder that China’s newfound economic clout does not readily translate to strategic influence. Unless Beijing changes its diplomatic approach and works to persuade its neighbors that its regional vision, whatever that may be, is beneficial for everyone, China will find itself increasingly isolated in the region. 

HOLIDAY ROMANCE

China and South Korea’s diplomatic courtship began in early 2013, following Park’s election. Park entered office seeking to strengthen Seoul’s relationship with Beijing, which had suffered from China’s support for North Korea after Pyongyang’s military provocations against Seoul in 2010, as well as from her predecessor Lee Myung-bak’s diplomatic focus on the United States. Park’s China policy was premised on two points: first, that Beijing’s cooperation would be indispensable for disarming North Korea and for establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula; and second, that South Korea’s economy depends heavily on trade with China. Even before her inauguration, the president-elect sent a special envoy to China—her first to any country. Once in office, Park visited Beijing herself on the heels of her first trip to the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, was happy to reciprocate South Korean overtures, calling Park an old friend, honoring her request to erect a memorial in Harbin for Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence activist who assassinated a prominent Japanese politician in 1909, and breaking Chinese tradition by visiting Seoul before setting foot in Pyongyang, which Xi has yet to do as president.

In South Korea, hopes abounded that Xi and Park’s warm relationship would yield progress on the Korean Peninsula, a traditional sore spot between their countries. And initially, Beijing’s actions seemed to indicate a new willingness to restrain Pyongyang. In late 2013, China imposed an extensive ban on the export of items to North Korea that could be used for weapons production, and it began to tolerate increasingly frank and critical discussion of its traditional ally in state media. But South Korea’s initial optimism waned as Beijing showed itself reluctant to go any further. In my conversations with former and current South Korean government officials and experts, conducted from 2014 to 2016, the consensus was that Park’s overtures to China had yet to yield results due to China’s lack of reciprocation. The only modest sign of progress was that Beijing became willing to listen to Seoul’s views on the unification of the Korean Peninsula and its contingency plans in the case of a North Korean collapse, whereas such discussions had been completely shunned in the past.   

Yet it was the debate on THAAD—and Beijing’s abrasive approach to the issue—that finally convinced many South Koreans that Park’s attempt to befriend China had simply failed. THAAD first surfaced as an issue in 2014, when General Curtis Scaparrotti, then commander of United States Forces Korea, recommended the deployment of THAAD to defend against North Korea’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Despite South Korean and U.S. assurances that the system would be purely configured to defend against North Korea, Beijing protested that THAAD’s radar could be used to monitor Chinese airspace and would expand a U.S.-led missile defense system designed to contain China. Xi and his deputies set about lobbying the South Korean leadership to drop the plan, but with little success; their arguments focused on why THAAD threatened China’s interests while doing little to address South Korea’s legitimate concerns about North Korea, or to convince Seoul that it would be safer without THAAD.

South Koreans burn Kim Jong Un in effigy at an anti-North Korea protest, December 2013.
South Koreans burn Kim Jong Un in effigy at an anti-North Korea protest, December 2013.
Kim Jong-hi / Reuters

Beijing’s egocentric diplomacy proved to be counterproductive. For instance, in March 2015, China’s assistant foreign minister, Liu Jianchao, visited Seoul and asked his South Korean counterpart to “attach importance to China’s concerns and interests” when considering whether to deploy the missile defense system. Up to this point, South Korea, wary of provoking China, had maintained an equivocal position on THAAD. But Liu’s remarks angered many in the South Korean government, pushing them to shed some of their strategic ambiguity. For instance, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense immediately released a statement saying that although a “neighboring country” could have its own views on THAAD, “it should not attempt to exert influence on our security policies.”

In February 2016, China’s ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, made another misstep when he warned leaders of the Minjoo Party, South Korea’s main opposition, that the two nations’ ties could be “destroyed in an instant” due to THAAD. His threat was widely condemned by South Koreans, who expressed outrage at China’s disregard for their independence and national interests. Perhaps most telling, Qiu’s remarks led the Minjoo Party, which had previously expressed skepticism about THAAD, to abandon the issue during the April legislative elections. In fact, public opinion polls conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies show that South Koreans’ favorability ratings of China dropped rapidly in the first few months of 2016, and that 52.5 percent of South Koreans now believe that China is the greatest obstacle to Korean unification, a marked increase from 24.8 percent in 2014. Beijing’s abrasive diplomacy, it seems, succeeded in alienating not only its critics in South Korea but also its supporters.

In addition to its botched diplomatic campaign, Beijing’s inaction in the face of North Korea’s increasingly threatening behavior further convinced the South Korean leadership that China was not a reliable partner. On January 6, 2016, after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, Xi refused to answer Park’s request for an emergency phone call, prompting her to use a televised speech to ask Beijing to do more to restrain North Korea. The South Korean defense minister also tried but failed to reach his Chinese counterpart using a military hotline that had been established between the two countries the previous year. After a North Korean long-range rocket test just one month later, South Korea and the United States announced they would begin official discussions on THAAD. By July 8, they had officially agreed to deploy the system, despite China’s threats of retaliation.

THAAD COMPANY

Earlier this month, North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, driving home to most South Koreans their country’s need for THAAD. But even before the most recent test, few mainstream voices in Seoul were opposed to the system. This was despite the fact that during the months of July and August, the South Korean media had been filled with reports of THAAD’s damage to the country’s economy, and especially to the retail, tourism, and entertainment sectors, which depend heavily on Chinese consumers. For instance, South Korean cosmetics exports experienced a slowdown due to the abrupt tightening of Chinese customs clearance procedures; travel agencies faced mass cancellations of Chinese group tours; and entertainment companies reported that their Chinese counterparts were cancelling Korean television dramas and K-pop concerts in China with little explanation.

Although it is difficult to determine whether these were cases of retaliation from the central government or simply from companies and local officials acting on their own initiative, the South Korean public understood quite clearly that upsetting Beijing would not be costless. But amid this anxiety, support for THAAD among South Koreans actually increased from 50 percent to 56 percent between July and August, according to a poll conducted by Gallup Korea. Although there have been anti-THAAD protests in South Korea, these have almost exclusively been concerned with the location of the deployment sites or with a lack of transparency in the decision-making process. China’s retaliation tactics, on the other hand, succeeded only in further alienating the South Korean public.

The fallout over the deployment of THAAD and Beijing’s squandered opportunity to woo Seoul represents, above all, a failure of Chinese diplomacy. Beijing’s use of self-centered arguments and murky threats of economic and political retaliation both failed to shape South Korean security policy and lost South Korea’s good will. Good diplomacy requires showing how cooperation can help both sides meet their goals. Unless Beijing sets aside its Sino-centric approach to diplomacy, it could find itself repeating similar failures in the future.

This is not to say that Beijing should forsake its own concerns; after all, state leaders must look out for their country's interests. But China needs to demonstrate to its neighbors that it is actively contributing to the peace and safety of the region, not just throwing around its economic weight. With South Korea, it can start to show its good will by doing more to curb North Korea’s nuclear program through the strict enforcement of existing sanctions. In addition, as North Korea’s largest, and practically only, customer, China can stop buying North Korean goods until Pyongyang agrees to come to the negotiating table with denuclearization as a priority—a goal shared by Beijing and Seoul. Chinese leaders should also recognize the genuine possibility of Pyongyang’s collapse and engage in contingency planning with their South Korean and U.S. counterparts to discuss mutually acceptable emergency procedures and transition scenarios. To win true friends and influence in Korea and beyond, China will need to prove that its newfound strength will be used to benefit not only itself but its neighbors, too.

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  • PATRICIA M. KIM is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program. Her current research examines U.S.-Chinese diplomacy. 
  • More By Patricia M. Kim