Growing China dilemma
: Long-term strategy needed to reshape bilateral ties
During the Lunar New Year holiday, an "incident" spoke much about the current relationship between Korea and China.
Last Friday, the British Museum held an event to introduce Korea's traditional music and dance. It then posted an article titled "Celebrating Seollal" on Twitter, explaining the day as the "Korean Lunar New Year." Many Chinese users attacked it, saying, "A renowned museum helped Korea steal the Chinese culture." The museum yielded, changing the words to "Chinese Lunar New Year" immediately.
Other East Asian countries than China celebrate the Lunar New Year, like Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. The British institution did nothing wrong calling Seollal the Korean Lunar New Year, as it differed from China's "Chunjie," or Spring Festival. But this could not have worked for nationalistic Chinese.
Foreigners, including Koreans, acknowledge China is a big country. If China wants to become a great and respected country, it must also respect other countries, large or small. Some Chinese people appear unwilling or unable to do so.
Koreans do not deny the influence of China and its culture, including Chinese characters and Confucianism. But Koreans will not accept their fermented vegetable dish or traditional dress also being called Chinese.
The two countries squabble increasingly frequently over culture and history because they are more similar than different. But they are getting further away from each other, especially if the mutual animosity of the younger generation is any indicator. Repeated surveys show China is the least-liked country among the Korean MZ generation, more disliked than Japan, Russia and North Korea.
One reason is these youngsters had grown when their countries grew stronger. China has become the world's second-largest economy over the past few decades. Korea also became a country with high income and pop culture enjoying global popularity. The mutual estrangement in the younger generation is not beneficial to each other, particularly for China, which seeks to become the global leader. The establishments should educate their youngsters to understand each other better.
Not least because things are changing rapidly for both countries.
For China, 2022 was not a very good year. China's economic growth remained at its lowest since the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Its population also fell for the first time in 61 years. At this rate, China will likely enter a superaged society (with people 65 or older accounting for 20 percent of the population) in the early 2030s, with the economy growing below 5 percent. That is a wake-up call for Korean officials used to "high-flying China" as a constant in making economic policies.
Korea still ships out a quarter of its export products to China, larger than the shipments to the U.S. and Japan combined. China is also the biggest supplier of about 8,000 items Korea needs most. If China's economic growth drops by 1 percentage point, Korea's growth also falls by 0.15 percentage points. All this shows the urgent need for Korea to diversify its export markets to India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. No countries should be excluded. Terming a middle power like Iran as a virtual enemy certainly does not help. Tehran still wants an explanation from the one who made the remark.
It will become increasingly difficult for Korea to chart its diplomatic courses between the U.S. and China. However, one thing is sure: the Korea-China relationship must not become subordinated to the Korea-U.S. or even the U.S.-China relationship. Korea must have a long-term strategy to maximize its national interests in relationships with the two superpowers, not leaning to one side.
Korea needs two things to back it up: maintain the principle of adhering to justifiable causes, be it global peace, free trade or climate change. It must also nurture economic and technological capabilities to back up such principles.
Regrettably, the Yoon Suk Yeol government has yet to unveil much regarding its China or global strategy for the, long or short term.