South Korean and Chinese national flags hang from a pole in front of the portrait of former Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Square January. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

China hit the jackpot in three major ways in its recent agreement to mend ties with South Korea over the latter’s deployment of a US THAAD antimissile system, according to 38 North, a respected specialist website on North Korea.

The first payoff is that the agreement offers assurances from Seoul that it recognizes China’s “strategic position in the region.” Secondly, the quickening relations between China and South Korea creates a better political environment to deal with the current nuclear crisis with North Korea. “Finally, the agreement allows China to frame itself as the responsible power in the region while Trump is on his Asian tour,” 38 North analysts Andray Abrahamian and Daekwon Son wrote in their piece.

“Although Beijing failed to prevent South Korea’s deployment of THAAD altogether via unilateral sanctions and political pressure, the new agreement got Seoul to publicly state it would abide by three “no’s”: 1) no additional THAAD deployments in South Korea; 2) no participation in a US-led strategic missile defense system; and 3) no creation of a ROK-US-Japan trilateral military alliance,” the article said.

The upshot, according to the authors, is that “South Korea agreed to at least symbolically distance itself from a US-led strategy of containing China.” The piece posted on the website of Johns Hopkins University’s Korea institute notes that Seoul left itself some wiggle room on these “no’s.” But Washington isn’t pleased.

“US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster welcomed the Sino-ROK detente, but he also hinted at US concern over South Korea’s possible decoupling from American-led security structures, saying that he does regard the three no’s as “definitive” in terms of official policy,” the article said.

The writers argue that China never intended the informal sanctions it slapped on South Korea after the deployment of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system to be long term. Beijing, they said, typically doesn’t want such punitive measures to damage long-term bilateral economic ties, global growth or the performance of China’s economy.

“In this sense, Beijing may have decided that it had made its point over THAAD and that its interests would now be better served by improving relations with Seoul in order to help deal with the North Korea crisis in the coming months and push back against US strategic designs on the region in the coming years,” the writers summed up. “Indeed, depending on how the crisis plays out, those concerns may overlap.”

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