The Geopolitical Dynamics of the Korean Peninsula in China-South Korea Relations

China and Korea
Haze over Northern China and the Korean Peninsula (Credits: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC-, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 38 Issue 18
Author: Riccardo Rossi

In the backdrop of a three-nation military exercise involving the United States, South Korea, and Japan in the East China Sea, this report delves into the intricate geopolitical landscape surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

Analysing the growing relations between China and South Korea, we scrutinise the multifaceted factors influencing Beijing’s strategic calculus. From the geographical imperatives shaping China’s priorities to the historical evolution of economic-diplomatic ties, we navigate through pivotal phases.

This report unravels China’s strategic operations in Korea, encompassing diplomatic engagements, economic collaborations, and the intricate dance between regional powers.

As China faces challenges posed by North Korea nuclear developments, this analysis concludes with a glimpse into potential future scenarios, where China must navigate a delicate balance between supporting the DPRK and safeguarding its role in the global economy amidst heightened regional tensions.


From January 15-17, 2024, United States, South Korea, and Japan showcased their military prowess through an air-naval exercise in the East China Sea. This joint manoeuvre involved key assets, including the aircraft carrier group Carl Vinson, the Japanese helicopter carrier JS Hyuga (DDH-181), and two South Korean missile launchers, Sejong the Great (DDG-991) and Wang Geon (DDH-978). In response, North Korea, a significant player in the regional power dynamics, conducted a test of its nuclear submarine armament.

The complicated geopolitical situation highlights the interconnected relationships between the Korean Peninsula, the United States, and regional powers like China.

China’s Geopolitical Calculus

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) perceives any military exercise in the East China Sea as a potential risk to the stability of the Korean peninsula. Simultaneously, China recognises South Korea as a crucial partner in realising the North Korea denuclearisation program and sustaining its economic-industrial apparatus.

To comprehend the intricacies of the China-South Korea relationship in the broader context of the Sino-US rivalry in the Asia-Pacific region, it is vital to analyse Beijing’s geopolitical priorities.

Its geographical proximity and strategic considerations significantly influenced China’s perspective on the Korean peninsula. The peninsula, bordered by China to the north, the Sea of Japan to the east, the Core Strait to the south, and the Yellow and Bohai Seas to the west, holds paramount importance for Beijing’s geopolitical objectives.

  1. Overseeing the Strait of Korea. The Strait of Korea, strategically positioned in the Malacca Sea Lines of Communications (SLOc) and North Sea Route (NSR), serves as a vital asset connecting China to markets in Africa, the US, and the EU.
  2. Utilising DPRK’s Resources. Beijing strategically leverages Pyongyang’s natural and human resources to optimise its industrial hubs in Liaoning and Jilin provinces. This involves employing a significant North Korea workforce and securing essential mineral resources.
  3. Managing Security Risks. The proximity of Chinese provinces Liaoning and Jilin, along with the military port of Dalian, to North Korea poses a security risk for China. In the event of conflict, critical Chinese infrastructures could become targets of US military operations. To mitigate this risk, China economically supports the Kim-Jong Un regime while maintaining diplomatic relations with Seoul and Washington.

Read more | New ships for the Chinese Navy confirm Beijing’s strategy in Asia-Pacific

Evolution of Economic-Diplomatic Relations Between China and South Korea

Conducting a detailed historical analysis is necessary to gain a thorough understanding of the economic and diplomatic ties between China and South Korea, which can be divided into two significant phases.

  1. 1953 to the Dissolution of the Soviet Union. During this period, China maintained a closed stance toward Seoul, emphasising the defence of North Korea regime integrity. South Korea’s attempts at normalising diplomatic relations faced challenges.
  2. Collapse of the Soviet Union to Today. The normalisation of diplomatic-economic relations between China and South Korea in 1992 marked a significant shift. Initially characterised by Seoul’s industrial superiority, this relationship developed with China gaining technological-industrial superiority. Beijing’s strategic plans, including the ‘Made in China 2025’ project, positioned China as a technological leader, affecting South Korean policies.

The progression of economic relations between China and South Korea witnessed several key milestones, including trade agreements and the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that came into force in December 2015.

  1. Trade Agreements. China and South Korea entered various trade agreements, culminating in the bilateral FTA, eliminating tariffs on over 90% of import/export goods for the next 20 years.
  2. Trade Growth. From 1992 to 2019, trade between China and South Korea increased substantially, reaching USD 239 billion. In 2022, China exported goods worth USD 162.62 billion to South Korea, solidifying their economic partnership.
  3. High-Tech Exchange. Both countries engaged in a robust cultural-educational exchange, exchanging high-tech goods and facilitating educational opportunities.
  4. Impact of Sanctions. China imposed sanctions on South Korea following the installation of the THAAD missile defence system, causing significant economic damage.

China’s Strategic Operation in Korea

The People’s Republic of China, recognising the strategic significance of the Korean Peninsula, has actively pursued a comprehensive policy aimed at fostering denuclearisation in the region while concurrently establishing a framework for long-term stability.

This strategic initiative involves multifaceted approaches to diplomatic engagement and dialogue, each playing a crucial role in China’s overarching strategy.

Privileged dialogues with both the United States and South Korea have marked China’s diplomatic efforts, reflecting a commitment to fostering cooperative solutions in the region.

This diplomatic engagement, underscored by proposals like the ‘double freeze’ and active support for United Nations sanctions, serves as a testament to China’s dedication to collaborative endeavours. These proposals demonstrate Beijing’s proactive role in seeking diplomatic avenues to address the complex challenges posed by North Korean nuclear activities.

Furthermore, Beijing views strategic dialogue with Seoul as a pivotal instrument in not only reducing the concentration of military assets near the Korean Demilitarised Zone but also in effectively managing and resolving Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

In this context, the People’s Republic of China seeks to establish a foundation for regional security and stability through open communication channels and cooperative efforts. However, it is important to note that South Korea’s decisions, such as the installation of the THAAD system, have introduced complexities into this strategic dialogue, creating challenges that both nations must navigate carefully. These decisions have added layers of intricacy to China’s pursuit of stability in the region, requiring continuous adaptability in its strategic approach.

Read more | The crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the effects on the geopolitical balance in the East China Sea


In conclusion, Beijing-Seoul’s relations emerge as a critical factor with profound implications for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region. The complex tapestry of economic and industrial connections between these two nations offers a potential pathway for mutual comprehension and collaboration.

However, the delicate balance is perturbed by Seoul’s alignment with the United States in addressing the nuclear threat emanating from Pyongyang, a move perceived by the PRC as a direct threat to its own security.

Looking ahead, the leadership under Xi Jinping may encounter unforeseen challenges stemming from North Korea nuclear developments. In the worst-case scenario, this could escalate into a conflict with Seoul, presenting Beijing with an unprecedented dilemma.

The central question looms: will China opt to continue its historical support for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or contemplate a shift in allegiance by potentially staging a coup against the Kim regime?

The significance of this decision goes beyond maintaining stability in the region. Beijing must carefully manage the delicate balance between protecting its position in the global economy and ensuring stability in the Korean Peninsula.

In essence, the uncertain trajectory of China-Republic of Korea relations underscores the complexity of geopolitical dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. As the region grapples with evolving challenges, the choices made by key players will undoubtedly shape the future landscape.

The delicate interplay of economic interests, security considerations, and diplomatic intricacies necessitates a nuanced approach in understanding and navigating the complexities of this pivotal geopolitical relationship. The Asia-Pacific region remains at a crossroads, and the decisions made by China and South Korea will significantly influence the unfolding narrative, with broader implications for global stability.

For those with an interest in acquiring comprehensive insights into the geopolitical dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, we encourage you to reach out to our team by sending an email to We are poised to facilitate an assessment of the opportunity for you to obtain a meticulously crafted and specialised report tailored to your intelligence needs.

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