A diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Seoul appeared to intensify on Friday after a sharp fall in the number of Chinese tourists traveling to South Korea amid growing tensions over its plans to deploy a U.S. missile defense system.
Bilateral ties began to cool when South Korea announced plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), as a way to defend against North Korea's ever-developing nuclear and missile technologies.
Reports say China has now banned mass company chartered flights to South Korea in response, while Seoul recently turned down visa applications for language teachers at Beijing's Confucius Institutes in the country.
Beijing has also blocked shipments of various South Korean products, including cosmetics, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
The agency said tourist arrivals from mainland China on mass company outings on chartered flights looks set to fall by up to 20 percent from 130,000 during 2016.
Citing the government's Korea Tourism Organization, it said the overall number of Chinese tourists last year hit a record high of 8.04 million.
"January is usually a slow month for group tours, but still the drop was more than visible," the agency quoted an official as saying.
Threat to China?
Beijing's foreign ministry on Wednesday denied there was any official ban on trips to South Korea, saying that cultural and economic ties are formed on the basis of "public opinion," and that Seoul would do well to note that many Chinese people oppose THAAD.
The South Korean government says THAAD is needed to defend against North Korean nuclear attacks, but Beijing says the system could extend its radar into China, posing a threat to national security.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said its government-funded Confucius Institutes in South Korea were set up at the request of South Korean universities, and called on Seoul to ensure the correct visa procedures were followed for their staff.
He said the affected Confucius Institutes were in touch with the South Korean government to sort the matter out.
"As a Chinese government department, we hope that both sides can work hard, and that the Confucius Institute can continue to help South Korean people learn Chinese, to play a positive role in increasing bilateral mutual trust and friendship," Lu told a daily news briefing on Friday.
But the South Korean justice ministry denied the decision on visas was linked to the dispute over THAAD.
Beijing-based political activist Zha Jianguo said the nuclear threat posed by North Korea is pushing Seoul closer to the United States, which is bad news for regional peace and stability.
"Now, South Korea is saying that they won't be renewing any more visas for Confucius Institute teachers in the country, which tells us that they aren't going to give in easily to China on this," Zha said.
"I think that the general direction things are going in looks extremely bad for China, because if the alliance between Seoul and Washington continues to get stronger, there's a strong likelihood this could lead to military action in the end, against North Korea," he said.
He said any U.S.-South Korea alliance could reasonably be expected to win a war on the Korean peninsula, which would have massive political repercussions throughout the region, including China.
Beijing to blame
Hebei-based journalist Zhu Xinxin said the Chinese authorities are opposing THAAD in the name of peace, but blamed Beijing for its failure to aid a resolution of the Korean problem.
"On the face of it, this is just a diplomatic dispute, with each side taking tit-for-tat measures," Zhu said.
"But I actually think that South Korea has made a very good choice here, because everyone knows that the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party uses the Confucius Institutes to promote its ideology throughout the rest of the world," he said.
Relations between staunch U.S. ally South Korea and communist China were poor for decades in the wake of the Korean War (1950-1953), but growing economic ties led to warmer ties in recent years.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.