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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (October 4, 2006)

China and S.Korea: Raiders of the Arc of History

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

China and South Korea are the two countries putting the most pressure on Japan to face up to its history. But ironically, they themselves are embroiled in a dispute over history that threatens the largely amicable two-way relationship they've enjoyed since normalisation in 1992.

Two years ago, Beijing and Seoul's dispute over history erupted into the open when mainland academics incensed Koreans by describing Koguryo - the largest of the three kingdoms into which ancient Korea was divided until 668 - as a vassal kingdom of China. The dispute quieted down after the two governments agreed not to let academic differences turn into a political dispute.

Recently, however, things have turned ugly. The website of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the highest academic research organisation in the country, declared that the ancient kingdom of Bohai, considered a successor state to Koguryo, was "not an independent country but a local government under control of the Tang dynasty". It was "inseparable from Chinese history".

The Chinese researchers are part of the Northeast Project of the Research Centre for Chinese Borderland History and Geography, a research centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, established in 1983.

Now South Korean politicians from all parties have closed ranks against China. When President Roh Moo-hyun met Premier Wen Jiabao last month in Helsinki, he asked that Beijing "take appropriate action". Mr Wen reportedly said he had already asked the academy to refrain from hurting the two countries' relationship, adding that "we will take further necessary measures".

As to why Beijing is allowing its academics to make these provocative statements, speculation in Seoul is that the mainland is preparing for the collapse of North Korea. When that happens, it will be able to make claims on the territory, arguing that it was originally part of China.

Both sides have projected present-day views of nation states back to a period when such concepts were totally different, or even non-existent. Borders were often fluid, and various ethnic groups moved in and out of regions during historical times.

Beijing takes the view that all groups living within the confines of the country's borders have, from time immemorial, been Chinese - regardless of ethnicity. Therefore their histories are part of Chinese history.

The Koreans argue that, even though there is a Korean minority in China today, Korean history is not part of Chinese history.

Compounding the problem is that Beijing's approach is relatively recent. In the past, it talked about its conquest by foreign invaders, such as the Mongols and the Manchus.

Chinese history was replete with stories of patriots who battled invaders, such as Yue Fei , who fought against the armies of the Jurchen - forerunners of the Manchus - during the southern Song dynasty. Statesman Wen Tianxiang was captured by the Mongols in the 13th century and executed after he refused to join them.

Now that China regards Mongols, Manchus and others as all part of the Chinese nation, such wars are simply regarded as internecine struggles and their heroes are played down.

China loudly proclaims that its research is only for academic purposes. But, to South Korea, these academics are robbing their country of its most precious possession - its history.

Beijing would do well to assert that the researchers' findings do not represent the official position. One way to do that is to publish the work of Chinese researchers who disagree with those in the Northeastern Project - and such scholars do exist.

Unless Beijing takes measures to ease South Korean worries, one of its most important diplomatic relationships could be imperilled. Since Beijing wants to wean Seoul away from Washington, it should be doing everything in its power not to be seen as a threat. Certainly, it does not want to be seen as poised to steal not just Korea's history - but half the peninsula, as well.

(Originally appeared in the October 4, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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