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Challenges for the next 30 years

The ROK and China are on a historic mission with lasting impact


The long-standing relationship between the Republic of Korea and China goes back thousands of years. In this light, the last 30 years since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1992 are merely a blink of an eye. Yet this blink might arguably be the most spectacular and productive period in this bilateral relationship. In commemoration and celebration of the past 30 years of enduring partnership between the ROK and China, it would be meaningful to recognize some important changes that have taken place in three areas.

First, in the political arena, the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties 30 years ago paved the way for the beginning of the end of the vestiges of the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula. The ROK joined the United Nations in 1991. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's decision to join the United Nations simultaneously further elevated the significance of the occasion. The two Koreas' rapprochement efforts have ensued with many ups and downs, although the DPRK's pursuit of nuclear weapons has largely inhibited further progress.

Second, economic relations between the ROK and China have been even more wondrous. Mutual trade has grown more than 50 times and mutual direct investment almost 500 times. These remarkable achievements have been possible due in large part to the mutually beneficial complementarity between the two economies. There is no doubt that they have served as a launchpad for China and the ROK to become the second and the 10th largest economies in the world respectively.

Third, in social and cultural areas, the number of mutual visitors grew 70 times in the pre-pandemic period. The number of students from the ROK studying in China reached a record high of about 70,000 in 2019. The number of sister cities topped 200 with a growing number of exchange programs.

These are all spectacular feats that will be hard to emulate over the next 30 years. The path ahead is sure to be much more challenging for the following reasons.

Politically, the rising Sino-US rivalry brings great uncertainty to world politics. The Korean Peninsula stands squarely on the emerging geopolitical fault line between the United States and China, the world's two most powerful states. This poses a dual challenge to the ROK. First, it makes it more complicated to manage the DPRK nuclear problem and other issues between the two Koreas. It also makes it tougher for the ROK to maneuver through various global and regional security issues.

Economically, the Sino-US rivalry is affecting global and regional supply chains in a way that encourages decoupling, particularly in high-tech areas. This also puts the ROK in a difficult dilemma, given its profound dependence on US technology as well as on the Chinese market and raw materials.

It requires a new and transformative approach on the part of policymakers of the ROK and China in both the public and private sectors to address these double-layered challenges. Given the enormity and intensity of these challenges, it is crystal clear that business as usual will not work any longer. The inertia plaguing policymakers' thinking, talking and doing must be remedied.

First, policymakers will benefit from new ways of thinking. This will enable the ROK and China to work with other partners, including the US, for the global common good.

Second, policymakers should avoid using old clich├ęd expressions and try crafting new phrases that reflect the new ways of thinking.

Last but not least, US-China relations must be managed responsibly within the mutually agreed guardrails. This is critical not only for China and the US, but also for the world. It would be most effective to start with less sensitive issues but with high global significance, such as weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the climate crisis and global health.

The next 30 years of the ROK-China relations will inevitably see tough times. But they will not be insurmountable if the peoples and policymakers of both countries put aside their differences and pool their wisdom for a better future. The success of the last 30 years can bring more success for another 30 years. The ROK and China are on a historic mission with lasting impact. I count on their proactive creativity to open a new era of peace and prosperity for the region and beyond.

The author is the former under secretary-general of the United Nations. 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.