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China's covert police stations should alarm South Korea: Danish scholar

By Jung Min-ho

December 27, 2022

Workers wearing face masks wait to guide visitors at an exhibition highlighting China's President Xi Jinping and his achievements at the Beijing Exhibition Hall in in Beijing, Oct. 12. Following allegations of China's secret police stations overseas and "THAAD retaliation," Seoul may need to reconsider its openness toward Beijing, according to a Danish scholar. AP-Yonhap

Media reports accusing China of operating secret police stations overseas, including at least one in South Korea, have so far established considerable evidence for further inquiry, with over a dozen countries now investigating the allegations.

This should prompt South Korean politicians to reassess their country's openness toward China, not just in trade but also in other areas, as Beijing repeatedly shows that any opportunities it offers could be turned suddenly into a threat or worse, according to Luke Patey, the author of "How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions."

"Koreans and citizens in each of the involved countries should be asking their governments how such police stations were established in the first place," Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, told The Korea Times. "If we go back five to seven years or so when the stations were established there may have been broader political openness to engage China … But our policies need to change with the facts on the ground."

If the South Korean authorities confirm the existence of such a facility allegedly operated out of the Chinese city of Nantong, they should consider reforming their China policy as it would show ― once again ― that the two countries' diplomatic protocols and rule of law have not been respected bilaterally, he added.

The Chinese government has officially denied the accusations. But South Korean investigators suspect a Chinese restaurant in southern Seoul is a front for Beijing's unauthorized operations here.

China's clandestine stations have already been confirmed by officials in some countries. The Dutch government said two such facilities were closed last week; another in Dublin was also ordered to shut down by the Irish government.

The report that started it all, by Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based human rights group, claims the stations were set up in 53 countries as early as 2015. It also alleges that South Korea is among the countries where Chinese students were hired as "overseas liaison officers to cooperate with domestic officers both internally and externally."

A banner celebrating the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China is set up near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, Aug. 23. Newsis

'THAAD retaliation' shows brazenness ― and limits ― of what Beijing can do

For South Koreans, the global scandal is unfolding while memories of "THAAD retaliation" are still fresh and their trust of China is at the lowest level in decades. Beijing's outright ban on the import of some South Korean products as well as on sending tour groups to Korea was its response to Seoul's decision to deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in its territory in 2017.

But recently, Beijing signaled a willingness to improve relations while lifting the ban on South Korea's movies and TV shows quietly. Patey believes this might be part of Beijing's broader efforts to restore diplomatic relations it helped damage out of fear of the long-term geopolitical and economic repercussions.

"Since the G-20 summit in [Indonesia's] Bali in late 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping has signaled a diplomatic openness to the outside world in a noteworthy effort to stabilize deteriorating relations with a host of advanced economies. Quietly dropping longstanding coercive measures on South Korea may very well be part of this outreach. It is very likely that this is only a tactical move by Beijing to try to reverse the course of its foreign relations with many Western countries and its East Asian neighbors," he said. "Beijing may fear that the United States is gaining traction in compelling other advanced economies to its side, or Chinese leadership sees the country's economy slowing and deems poor diplomatic ties with many of China's largest trading and investment partners as not helpful in sparking new growth."

China, of course, could unleash more such retaliation while never admitting that such a ban exists. Patey said China maintains such ambiguity mainly for two reasons: It helps to slow or even stifle the potential for retaliatory legal measures from targeted countries or companies, particularly through the World Trade Organization, and offers Beijing an eventual off-ramp if it wants to end its unofficial sanctions.

But in recent years, this strategy has tarnished China's international reputation and exposed a pattern, which countries such as South Korea can study to find out how far Beijing will go and what to expect from it. High-tech industries, for example, have remained unaffected by China's economic retaliation, which is focused mainly on the tourism, cultural and retail sectors.

Despite its assertive demeanor, China has maintained a "do no self-harm" approach to limiting detrimental consequences to its own growth, Patey noted.

"Beijing kept its hands off South Korean semiconductor chips. Limiting these high-tech intermediate products would hurt Chinese manufacturers too much. The same result took place when Beijing targeted Australia in 2020. It placed trade measures on a barrage of exports, including wine, barley and lobster, but it never touched iron ore and liquefied natural gas, crucial natural resources for driving forward China's industrial growth," he said. "To date, Beijing's political anger is limited by its economic interests."

Time for multilateral pushback against China's bullying

South Korea is not the only victim of China's political and economic bullying. China has also mistreated Canada, Denmark, Lithuania, Australia and so many others, which now share resentment toward China under Xi.

When Canadian authorities acted on an American extradition warrant for a Huawei executive in 2018, Beijing arbitrarily detained two Canadian nationals in China in response, in what was widely described as "hostage diplomacy." It also placed trade restrictions on a number of Canadian agriculture exports, including canola oil and pork.

"These were ostentatiously made on regulatory and sanitary grounds," Patey said. "But over time, as Chinese economic interests were damaged by these trade measures, China released these measures. It first quickly reversed course with pork. After the African swine flu wiped out 40 percent to 50 percent of the Chinese pig population, imports from Canada and other producers became essential to meet consumer demand in China. Much later, after the release of the Huawei executive and Canadian nationals, China then dropped trade restrictions on canola with no convincing explanation for their imposition in the first place."

Denmark was one of the earlier victims of China's bullying. In 2009, Beijing accused Denmark of ruining bilateral cooperation after then Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen met Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Soon, Denmark's leading companies became targets of China's coercive measures.

"Beijing only relented its economic and political pressure after the Danish government signed a verbal note acknowledging China's core interests and explicitly stating its opposition to Tibetan independence," Patey said.

But Beijing's economic coercion has proved to be a failure against Canberra, which has offset the loss of trade to China successfully by rediscovering other markets throughout Asia.

"The lesson here for South Korea and others is to pinpoint which industries are highly dependent on China and prone to possible Chinese economic pressure. The next step is to work in earnest to encourage trade and investment across developed and emerging markets to decrease such strategic vulnerabilities," Patey said. "This is no easy task, but such efforts are gaining traction as both economic and political risks in China grow … This does not mean China's trade and investment partners should decouple from China, but push diversification strategies forward to ensure that when risk becomes reality the damage done by Beijing is minimized."

He added, "A time may come when politics takes full command and Beijing becomes more willing and able to enact economic coercion. That is why a multilateral response to this pressure needs to build up now to leverage the collective weight of partners and hopefully deter future use by China and other major powers."

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