Tuesday marks the 18th anniversary of the establishment of official diplomatic relations between China and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Objectively speaking, over the past 18 years, the quick development of China-ROK ties has gone beyond even the most optimistic forecast at the outset.
Currently, China has already become the ROK's largest trade partner, biggest trade surplus source and largest foreign investment destination. The ROK is China's third largest trade partner. And, in recent years, people-to-people exchanges maintain at 4 million to 6 million person-times each year. Both are the other's largest source of foreign students.
While Sino-ROK relations are generally good, the controversial sinking of the ROK's navy ship Cheonan, which killed 46 seamen, has complicated the relationship.
China's appeal for all parties concerned to demonstrate "restraint" was viewed by some South Koreans as "sheltering the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)". They claimed China hadn't played the role of a responsible power and China-ROK relations suffered a setback for a time.
As a result of the Cheonan sinking, the ROK and the United States have been holding a series of large-scale military drills in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, allegedly targeting Pyongyang. However, many Chinese felt the military demonstration to be a threat to China's national security and the Chinese government also expressed strong concerns. China also strengthened its military training activities and exercises in the East China Sea.
Observing the development tendency of the China-ROK relationship, we see that Seoul chooses to boost economic ties with China, while siding firmly with Washington in security affairs.
In the short and medium term, Seoul will continue to hedge its bets. The China-ROK trade volume will grow quickly and in this sense bilateral relations will witness considerable progress. However, in terms of mutual trust on politics and security, the prospect doesn't seem so bright and clear.
Speaking plainly, countries that develop economic ties to make money are like fair-weather friends, while establishing security relations is more like two young people planning to get a marriage license, before which, both show prudence and test each other out. During this process, the most fundamental factor is to establish mutual trust.
We conducted a survey among 1,000 South Koreans about their level of faith in China and the US in February. Employing a 100-mark system, the US scored 61.8, while China achieved only 41.8. The gap is remarkable. It is probable that if we did the same survey again after the Cheonan incident the difference would have widened even further.
In China, the public's attitudes toward the ROK are sharply divided. On the one hand, there is a group of Korea-philes who are crazy about the so-called "Korea wave". On the other, there are those who dislike, or even have an aversion to the ROK, who usually give vent to their sentiments on the Internet.
Though neither survey results, nor opinion on the Internet, accurately reflect the sentiment between the public in China and the ROK, they do, at least, indicate that there is a long way to go before both sides make favorable impressions and build mutual trust.
At the moment, China and the ROK haven't found a way out of the dilemma of cooperating economically while remaining cautious about security.
The author is an associate professor with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.