[Column] Confidence matters in relations with China
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
China claims that deaths from Covid-19 remain in the double digits. Few believe in the official count. According to the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily in Hong Kong, as many as 800 million have been infected across the Chinese mainland. The Chinese buying spree in medicines is said to have gone beyond the borders. A person suspected of being from China is said to have filled a bag with 6 million won ($4,823) of over-the-counter medications swept from Hanam City in Gyeonggi.
Beijing suddenly relaxed its zero-Covid strategy steadfastly held throughout last three years after mass protests against draconian restrictions. Given very low immunity and vaccination in China, a fast spread was foreseeable. Yet China’s public health authorities have been misrepresenting the reality with numbers based on unclear sampling. The World Health Organization (WHO), usually criticized for being lenient with China, called on the government to share more comprehensive and real-time data.
China opened borders for nationals to freely travel abroad from Jan. 8 as a part of its quarantine lifting, alarming many governments around the world. Italian authorities tested passengers onboard from two flights departed from China and found respective positive rate of 38 percent and 52 percent. Japan has mandated a PCR test for all travelers from China. India, Taiwan and Italy also have toughened quarantine guidelines. The U.S. plans to have entrants from China submit negative test results.
South Korea has toughened the quarantine guidelines for entrants from mainland China. The government already set the temperature threshold at 37.3 degrees Celsius for fever checkup and forced those travelers who tested positive to get further examined for variant infections. The measures are necessary as new daily cases have been hovering over 50,000 in Korea
At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in China, the Moon Jae-in administration was slow and slack to prevent the spread of infections from China. But when the virus spread in Korea in March 2020, China turned away entrants from Korea. Some Korean homes in China were even stigmatized as a source of the infection. But the Moon administration did not protest, echoing Beijing’s statement that such actions are autonomous decisions by local governments in China. The Moon administration even refused to listen to medical advice to restrict arrivals from China even after it triggered public criticism about the government sacrificing national health to ensure Xi Jinping’s state visit to Korea.
A large Chinese restaurant in Seoul suspected of acting as a secret police for Beijing was able to avoid investigation for five years. Beijing would have made a serious violation of sovereignty if it had operated a covert police base in Korea. Beijing claims the restaurant was a kind of a call center for consulate affairs. But operating consulate function outside official missions also constitutes a violation of international law. In a press conference, the operator of the restaurant in question denied that it acted as a front office for secret police network. But he said that he was involved in an organization helping Chinese people who were hurt or died in Korea return to China. That was an admission of his role of hunting down and repatriating Chinese people the Chinese government had been chasing. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration must thoroughly investigate the role of the restaurant in order to take necessary actions.
The conservative government has ratcheted up quarantine measures on China in line with global standard. Yet Beijing has lifted restrictions on online streaming of Korean video content. China has taken a reconciliatory attitude towards South Korea under Yoon Suk Yeol’s presidency closer to the U.S. after maintaining cold attitude to the submissive Moon Jae-in government. Beijing is suspected to be taking overture towards Seoul as it has few supporters among neighbors in its standoff with the U.S. Seoul must not lose coolness amid new developments.
Beijing proposed a summit between Xi and Yoon at the G20 Summit in Bali in November. Seoul agreed to hold it on Nov. 25, the final day of Yoon’s trip to Southeast Asia. Seoul made the announcement just 10 hours before the meeting with Xi.
Won Hee-ryong, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, checks the government’s quarantine measures for travelers from China, Jan. 6, at Incheon International Airport. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
China may have felt the difference of the new government in Korea. Reciprocity is important for governments. When China respects us, we should respect them. But if it is high-handed, we should respond sternly to put bilateral relationship on an equal footing.