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Up in the air


Despite the shadow of the THAAD, China and the ROK can take relations to a new height

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Republic of Korea. Over the past three decades, China-ROK relations have in general maintained stability and displayed a sound long-term development trend.

The bilateral trade volume totaled $6.379 billion in 1992, up 44 percent on the year before. In the following four years, the growth rate was 42 percent, 28 percent, 42 percent and 21 percent respectively. Such high-speed growth continued until 2012, far exceeding the average global trade growth rate and the two countries' respective average trade growth rate during the same period, a testimony to the two countries' high degree of economic complementarity and the long-subdued potential of bilateral trade.

China and the ROK have maintained close economic and trade relations. China has been the ROK's largest trading partner for 17 consecutive years, with bilateral trade now accounting for over 25 percent of the ROK's total trade volume, a big jump from the 4.03 percent ratio in 1992. The ROK is China's third-largest trading partner after the United States and Japan, and China's biggest source of imports. On top of that, China is the ROK's second-largest destination for its outbound direct investment, accounting for over 20 percent of the ROK's total outbound direct investment. The booming economic and trade ties have fostered deeper cooperation among industries, laying a good foundation for the sound and stable development of bilateral ties.

However, the close economic ties have failed to ease the political mistrust between the two nations, which has been exacerbated by the ROK's decision to deploy the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system.

It requires both sides to demonstrate responsibility to go forward hand-in-hand and open a new chapter of the China-ROK relations. The two countries now have the critical opportunity to reshape their expectations for each other.

The formal establishment of China-ROK diplomatic relations on Aug 24, 1992 signaled the end of the Cold War in Northeast Asia.

More significantly, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the ROK helped China break the economic blockade and sanctions imposed by the US-led Western countries in the early 1990s. Having just kick-started its reform and opening-up policy, China took a key step to avoid being once again isolated.

For the ROK, the establishment of diplomatic relations with China not only meant a success for its Northern Policy, it was also an important way of exerting influence on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The ROK believed that rapprochement with China would help maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and ultimately achieve unification of the Korean Peninsula.

According to the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the ROK and the People's Republic of China on Aug 24, 1992, the establishment of diplomatic relations would help maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula and help maintain peace and stability in Asia. The government of the PRC respected Korean people's wish to achieve peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula at an early date, and supported the self-determined and peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.

History has proved that China and the ROK are most like-minded on the Korean Peninsula issue and they have been the most active parties in advancing the Six-Party talks on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, effectively safeguarding peace and stability of the peninsula amid several crises.

As political and economic ties further developed, cultural exchanges between the two countries have deepened. Korean Wave and Chinese Style have given rise to one fashion tide after another in China and the ROK respectively. The two countries have also been the largest source country of foreign students for each other since 2007.

And it should be borne in mind that over the past 30 years, China and the ROK have successfully resolved multiple serious crises in their relations.

To start with, a number of severe trade disputes arising from the fast-developing economic and trade ties have successfully been resolved. According to data from the Korea Trade Commission and China's Ministry of Commerce, from 1997 to 2007, China was the biggest target of the ROK's anti-dumping actions, accounting for one-third of the total, and the ROK is the third-largest target of China's anti-dumping actions. Trade disputes in the agricultural product sector have been the most common, and the trade disputes have exerted great negative impact on bilateral trade relations each time they erupted. The good thing is that each dispute has been successfully resolved through negotiations. Moreover, following the signing of the China-ROK Free Trade Agreement, the number of trade disputes has dropped significantly.

Second, harsh public sentiment against each other on account of history and culture disputes has been eventually well resolved. Disputes over the history of Goguryeo and the application for an inscription of the Dragon Boat Festival on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List were eventually resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.

And last, the leapfrog development of bilateral ties has benefitted from the peaceful settlement of the two countries' territorial disputes. Maritime delimitation between China and the ROK--both signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea--has been regarded as an important work for both governments. In August 2000, China and the ROK signed the Fisheries Agreement, making provisional and transitional arrangements for the two nations' fisheries issue. Fisheries disputes between the two countries have since been well-managed.

Needless to say, the THAAD issue has wreaked havoc on China-ROK relations, and is still a stumbling block affecting the development of bilateral relations. However, from a historical perspective, China-ROK disputes over a range of issues are not only a testimony to the increasingly frequent interactions and exchanges between two countries, but also a driver of closer bilateral ties alongside proper resolution of disputes. We believe that the THAAD issue is not, and will not be the whole picture of China-ROK relations. There should be a right approach and timing for eventually resolving the issue. As an old Chinese saying goes, close neighbors are better than distant relatives. China and the ROK have been close neighbors for thousands of years, that is a fact that no one can change.

The author is a professor with the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC (National Academy of Governance). The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn.