Xi hits back at SK-US-JP partnership, criticizing “politicizing” of economic cooperation

Posted on : 2022-11-16 17:27 KST Modified on : 2022-11-16 17:27 KST
The Chinese leader took a hard line on economic issues, with comments likely aimed at Seoul’s participation in US-led minilateral initiatives aimed at checking China
President Xi Jinping of China (left) speaks during his summit with President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea held on Nov. 15 in Bali, Indonesia. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Xi Jinping of China (left) speaks during his summit with President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea held on Nov. 15 in Bali, Indonesia. (courtesy of the presidential office)

Tuesday’s summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, was significant in that the leaders of the two countries sat down for the first time since December of 2019 — two years, 11 months ago — and pledged to improve the bilateral relationship and strengthen communication. However, during the short, 25-minute talk, the two leaders revealed differences regarding several pending issues, including the North Korean nuclear and missile threat and the reorganization of the US-led supply chain network.

The summit began with the two leaders exchanging pleasantries in their introductory remarks. Noting that this year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Beijing, Yoon expressed gratitude for China’s expression of sympathy following last month’s tragedy in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. Xi, too, said South Korea and China are “close neighbors who cannot move away from one another, and inseparable partners.” Regarding the Itaewon tragedy, Xi expressed his “heartfelt sympathy.”

The two leaders agreed to manage factors of tension and strengthen communication, concurring on the creation of a new dialogue channel, among other things. South Korea’s presidential office said Yoon proposed that the two sides promote “regular, high-level bilateral dialogue between China and Korea,” and that Xi expressed his agreement to activating high-level dialogue and proposed the construction of a 1.5-track bilateral dialogue channel that would be half-private, half-official.

However, the two sides could not narrow their differences over important pending issues. Yoon especially asked Xi to take an active role in responding to the North Korean nuclear and missile issues. Yoon said North Korea was “launching provocations at an unprecedented frequency, heightening nuclear and missile threats,” and that he hoped “China will take a more constructive role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a neighboring state.”

Xi responded by saying China and South Korea had “common interests regarding the Korean Peninsula issue,” that the two sides must “protect peace,” and that he hoped Seoul will “actively try to improve North-South relations,” emphasizing the role of Seoul, not Beijing.

Regarding Yoon’s “audacious initiative” to provide North Korea with economic aid if Pyongyang decides to denuclearize, Xi said “North Korea’s intentions are key,” and that if North Korea “responds favorably” to the proposal, China would “actively support and cooperate so that the ‘audacious initiative’ is well executed.” He added a condition, namely, that his support was predicated on North Korea “reacting favorably.”

China is also sticking to its position that the United States is largely responsible for the North Korean nuclear issue. In fact, China opposed the imposition of additional sanctions on North Korea by the UN Security Council in response to Pyongyang’s shows of force on Nov. 4, including the launch of ballistic missiles.

Yoon defined Seoul’s diplomatic means and methods as “universal values and international norms,” and that China has “a very important role in promoting freedom, peace and prosperity in Asia and the international community.” His emphasis on this was very subtle, suggesting that he asked China — in a roundabout way — to adhere to “universal norms.”

Regarding economic issues as well, including supply chains, Xi took a hard line.

China’s state-run CCTV reported that Xi said the two sides “must keep the global industrial and supply chains secure, stable and unclogged, and oppose politicizing economic cooperation or overstretching the concept of security on such cooperation.” Xi added that “the two sides need to accelerate negotiations on a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, deepen cooperation in such areas as high-tech manufacturing, big data and green economy, jointly uphold the international free trade system.”

These comments were aimed at South Korea’s potential participation in US-led “minilateral” communities to contain China, including the so-called Chip 4 initiative on semiconductor supply chains. They are also an expression of strong antipathy towards the “Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific” adopted by South Korea, the United States and Japan, which was clearly aimed at containing not only North Korea, but also China. In the statement, the leaders of the three countries agreed to create a new dialogue for economic security, including the strengthening of supply chains, and bolster cooperation through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF.

Xi said, “China is ready to work with the ROK [South Korea] to promote cultural exchanges and cooperation, scale up communication and coordination at the G20 and other fora, jointly practice true multilateralism and safeguard overall peace and stability in the region,” emphasizing “true multilateralism.” This term usually appears when China criticizes the US strategy to pressure China as “trade protectionism” and “unilateralism.” Xi’s comments appear suggestively aimed at South Korean foreign policy’s sudden turn toward Washington under Yoon.

The two leaders also asked one another for mutual visits. According to South Korea’s presidential office, Xi said that while he had been unable to visit South Korea due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he would be pleased to accept Yoon’s invitation to visit South Korea once the COVID situation stabilizes somewhat. He also reportedly said he hoped Yoon will visit China at a mutually convenient time.

However, depending on how one interprets them, Xi’s words could be read as a request that Yoon visit China, rather than an expression of intent to visit South Korea.

Xi’s last visit to South Korea came in July 2014, when Park Geun-hye was president. During the Moon Jae-in presidency, Moon visited China, but Xi never visited South Korea.

Yoon and Xi agreed on the need for greater communication on historical and cultural matters based on increased exchange among members of the younger generation in both countries.

Due to the short 25-minute duration of the meeting, the two leaders do not appear to have been able to hold concrete discussions on other bilateral issues, including the diplomatic frictions that have emerged from the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system with US Forces Korea.

The most recent previous South Korea-China summit — which took place between Moon and Xi in Beijing in December 2019 — lasted for over two hours, including a 55-minute meeting and a lunch lasting 80 minutes.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter; Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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