Lack of Yoon-Xi summit in San Francisco highlights Seoul’s troubled ties with Beijing

Posted on : 2023-11-20 17:23 KST Modified on : 2023-11-20 17:23 KST
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Xi only spoke for three to four minutes before the first session of the APEC summit on Thursday
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) speaks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a moderated discussion held at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University on Nov. 17. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) speaks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a moderated discussion held at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University on Nov. 17. (Yonhap)

Despite anticipation that a South Korea-China summit would take place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering in San Francisco, no such meeting came to fruition.

This stands in contrast to the US and Japanese heads of state meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to coordinate bilateral issues during the APEC summit.

Analysts are calling for a readjustment of Seoul’s relations with Beijing at a time when South Korea’s diplomacy has focused on trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan, while distancing itself from China.

On the no-go of a summit, the South Korean presidential office stated that the two leaders’ tight schedules made it difficult to coordinate a bilateral meeting.

A key presidential office official stated that a two-day, three-night schedule crammed with multilateral events such as the APEC and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity summit meant there was “not enough time” for bilateral talks.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Xi only spoke for three to four minutes before the first session of the APEC summit on Thursday (local time). The last time the two leaders held a bilateral summit was on the sidelines of the Group of 20 gathering in New Delhi, India, a year ago.

Seoul believes that the US-China and Japan-China summits were necessary because of various issues that needed to be resolved.

The leaders of the US and China met for four hours, during which they rejected de-coupling and eased tensions by restoring military communication channels. Xi also met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for more than one hour in a summit, discussing pending issues like the Chinese import ban on Japanese seafood and agreeing to expand communication channels by beginning high-ranking talks on economics.

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Xi held summits with leaders of at least six countries including the US, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Fiji, and Brunei from Wednesday onwards.

At a time when North Korea and Russia are growing closer, South Korea tried to convey that it was successfully managing ties with China through a South Korea-China summit during the APEC meeting but failed.

“This shows that there’s a long way to go until relations between South Korea and China are normalized. While the US and Japan sent high-ranking administrators to China to set the stage for a summit, South Korea did not take any such measures,” remarked Lee Nam-ju, a professor of Chinese studies at Sungkonghoe University.

Some analysts say Xi didn’t have a reason to meet with Yoon separately, as Seoul has been unable to establish an independent diplomatic presence. Lee Sang-man, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, commented, “South Korea has grown too close to the US to have many common agendas with China.”

During the APEC leaders’ meeting, Yoon continued to stress trilateral solidarity among South Korea, the US and Japan by meeting with Biden and Kishida and getting together with the latter twice, including for a bilateral summit.

Experts argue that the upcoming South Korea-China-Japan foreign ministers’ meeting should be followed up with a trilateral summit so that relations between Seoul and Beijing can be reset. The foreign ministers’ meeting is likely to take place on Nov. 26 in Busan, and the issue of holding a trilateral summit among the three countries will be discussed during the occasion.

Yong In University Chinese studies professor Park Soong-chan stated, “The South Korea-China-Japan foreign ministers’ meeting should be used as a turning point to create a feasible agenda. By setting up a system between [South Korea and China] concerning supply chains and regularizing high-level meetings, South Korea should use a utilitarian approach to separate its relations with the US [from its relations with China] and separate competition from cooperation.”

If a trilateral summit is arranged, China is likely to send Premier Li Qiang as its representative. “Because China regards the determination of its paramount leader as highly important, it’s important that [South Korea] improves its relations [with China] through meetings with Xi,” noted Lee Sang-man. “Even if a trilateral summit takes place, the strain in South Korea-China relations will probably continue for the foreseeable future.”

“As Yoon met with Li while visiting Jakarta, Indonesia, to attend an ASEAN-related meeting in September, and as Prime Minister Han Duck-soo talked with Xi during the opening ceremony for the Hangzhou Asian Games in September, urgent pending issues between South Korea and China have been resolved,” a key official at the presidential office explained. “During the APEC meeting, the leaders of South Korea and China shared well wishes during their encounter and promised to meet again.”

Yoon touched down in South Korea on Saturday after attending the APEC leaders’ meeting and will be departing the country again on Monday for a state visit to the UK.

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent

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

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