A 0-0 draw with North Korea meant South Korea passed up the chance to secure the East Asian Cup trophy.
Uli Stielike's side came into Sunday's meeting at the Wuhan Sports Centre top of the table on four points, one clear of both their opponents and China.
A victory would have sealed the title - their third in six attempts - but the stalemate means 2013 runners-up China can lift the trophy with victory over defending champions Japan later on Sunday.
The draw sees North Korea leapfrog China into second place - temporarily at least - while their neighbours face a nervous wait on the outcome of the final clash of the tournament.
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