Focus on economic cooperation suggests possible thaw in Seoul-Beijing ties

Posted on : 2024-05-27 17:12 KST Modified on : 2024-05-27 17:31 KST
Avoiding touchy topics during a summit in Seoul, the two sides made strides in cooperation on multiple fronts
Premier Li Qiang of China shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ahead of their summit at the presidential office in Seoul on May 26, 2024. (Yonhap)
Premier Li Qiang of China shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ahead of their summit at the presidential office in Seoul on May 26, 2024. (Yonhap)

Sunday’s summit between President Yoon Suk-yeol and Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Seoul signaled that the rocky relationship between Seoul and Beijing may slowly be finding its footing.
Instead of focusing on sensitive issues in international relations, the two countries sought to expand ties and maximize contacts in areas that they could cooperate on, such as the economy, society and culture.
Yoon and Li agreed to establish a diplomatic and security dialogue, a “2 + 2” consultative body involving high-ranking officials from the two nations’ foreign and defense ministries, and another dialogue for export controls, which would concentrate on issues related to supply chain cooperation and coordination.
The two leaders also agreed to resume the long-suspended strategic dialogue between their vice foreign ministers, the bilateral investment cooperation committee, and restart the second phase of negotiations on an expanded free trade agreement in addition to expanding exchanges in the cultural and social sectors.
Regarding the second phase of negotiations on the FTA between the two countries, which came into effect in December 2015, Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of Seoul’s National Security Office, stated, “The discussions will go beyond opening markets in the trade of goods to include sectors such as services, culture, tourism and legal services, to expand exchanges and openness between the two countries.”
The two countries also agreed to hold a second economic exchange meeting later this year, following the first meeting of that kind, which was held in China last November.
Assessing the outcomes of the talks, Lee Hee-ok, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University and director of the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies, said, “While avoiding sensitive issues that the two countries cannot fundamentally agree on, such as North Korea and Taiwan, South Korea and China made concrete agreements in areas where they can advance economic and people-to-people cooperation. By doing so, they managed to propel dialogue forward and balance both countries’ interests.”
South Korea is determined to show that it can maintain amicable relations with China while strengthening the South Korea-US alliance and trilateral security cooperation with the US and Japan. China, on the other hand, is looking for a breakthrough in its relations with South Korea, Japan and Europe as the US continues its technological decoupling with China.
According to reports on the summit out of China, Li used the occasion to note how “industrial and supply chains of China and South Korea are deeply intertwined, and economic and trade cooperation between the two countries has a solid foundation and huge potential.” 

“The two sides should also oppose turning economic and trade issues into political or security issues, and maintain stable and smooth industrial and supply chains of the two countries and the world,” the premier was quoted as saying. 

The outcomes of Sunday’s summit are seen as the result of efforts to find common ground that serves the interests of both sides.  
While the new diplomatic and security dialogues will seek to manage fundamental problems that concern North Korea and Taiwan, it is too early to tell how much progress the two countries will be able to make.
China demands that South Korea accept Beijing’s position on Taiwan, and South Korea wants China to be more constructive when it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue. During the summit, Yoon reportedly touched upon the North Korea issue by asking China to “play the role of peacekeeper as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.” Li’s response was not disclosed.
However, while the statement released by China claimed that Yoon said that South Korea upholds the “one-China principle,” South Korea’s statement revealed no mention of such a claim.
Observers are interested to see if the efforts to improve bilateral relations between South Korea and China will translate into mutual visits of key officials, such as a visit to South Korea by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Whether the two leaders would visit each other’s countries was not discussed at the summit, according to a senior official in the presidential office.
“If South Korea and China capitalize on their improved relations and Xi confirms that he will attend APEC 2025 [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit], which is to be hosted in South Korea, Yoon may take this opportunity to visit China before Xi’s visit,” predicted Lee, the professor. 

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer

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