[Column] Things more important than Xi Jinping’s visit to S. Korea

Posted on : 2020-11-27 17:29 KST Modified on : 2020-11-27 17:29 KST
Seoul needs to leverage its increased stature amid the US-China conflict to advance its own interests
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands at the Blue House on Nov. 26. (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands at the Blue House on Nov. 26. (Yonhap News)

Wang Yi, who directs China’s foreign affairs as the state councilor and foreign minister, paid successive visits to Japan and South Korea ahead of Joe Biden’s pending presidential inauguration. His visits are being viewed as a preliminary move to strengthen Beijing’s influence over Seoul and Tokyo in anticipation of a situation where the Biden administration attempts to marshal allies toward systematic curbs on China.

Wang’s South Korea visit prompted renewed interest in the question of whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will follow suit. When asked by reporters on Nov. 26 about the possibility of Xi visiting within the year, Wang said, “I believe that a visit can happen once the conditions are ripe.” When asked what the specific conditions for a visit were, he gestured to the masks sported by reporters and said the COVID-19 situation would need to be brought under control.

Since last year, a possible South Korea visit by Xi has been talked about as a sort of “magic spell” that could instantly resolve the various issues that have emerged in Seoul’s relations with Beijing since the conflict over the US’ deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Seoul is hoping that China can clear away residual ill will from the THAAD incident and play a proactive role toward improving inter-Korean relations and resuming nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. Beijing has also been enthusiastic about the idea of a visit by Xi, which it sees a potential way to reestablish its stature.

The matter of a visit by Xi has taken on a very different significance since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and Biden’s election. Around the world, public opinion blaming China for the pandemic has reached a fever pitch, and the nature of the US-China rivalry has changed. Rather than the sort of loud and old-fashioned trade war adopted by Donald Trump, Biden is seen as likely to go after China through a “precision strike” approach that enlists the strength of allies as it concentrates on financial areas and advanced technology. Beijing is preparing to head off Washington’s onslaught by drawing Asian countries into multilateral economic frameworks such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Amid these uncertainties, we need to lower our expectations that a South Korea visit by Xi will solve all of the problems, in favor of a review of strategy and cool-headed determination as to what South Korea is capable of doing with China.

“With Biden’s election, South Korea’s strategic stock has risen with both the US and China,” suggested Yang Gap-yong, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS).

“The US will prioritize restoring its alliance with South Korea after the damage done by Trump, while China is emphasizing South Korea’s role to prevent the US from isolating China through an alliance of values,” he explained.

Bolstering US-China cooperation on N. Korean nuclear issue

This suggests that South Korea will need to take full advantage of its higher stature. At the moment, both the US and China view the Korean Peninsula entirely through the lens of US-China relations. Potential areas of common ground where China could pursue improved relations with the Biden administration include cooperation on climate change and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. South Korea’s best chance of creating an environment conducive to advancements in inter-Korean peace and relations is getting China to take the initiative in systematically devising a solution for the North Korean nuclear issue and using that as a basis for broadening US-China cooperation on North Korea.

This will require making preparations while accurately reading the “chessboard” of international politics, which is more complicated now than before. That means effectively maintaining relations with China while guarding against overdependence and preparing for a chaotic situation where Washington and Beijing alternate repeatedly between conflict and cooperation. With Biden’s security team emphasizing the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) as a model for North Korean nuclear negotiations, the North Korea issue now needs to be resolved as part of a higher-order equation that also considers the Iran nuclear issue and Washington’s Middle East policy. The Blue House will need to employ a full range of experts with knowledge about the US, China, Japan and the Middle East for its foreign affairs and national security team.

Seoul’s strategy toward Beijing will also need to be reviewed. Since the two sides established diplomatic relations in 1992, the South Korean diplomatic approach with China has been to greatly expand economic relations while papering over disagreements in the area of national security. The THAAD episode clearly showed how unsustainable that approach is. Seoul and Beijing also need to explain their respective situations and views and make their principles clear when it comes to security issues. We can’t afford to have any more situations where we keep avoiding issues like THAAD, only to come out with abrupt decisions that exacerbate the conflict.

It’s also important that South Korea makes its voice heard. The fact that China focused its THAAD retaliation solely on South Korea — while staying quiet with the US, which was responsible for the system’s deployment — is a serious issue. South Korea also needs to clearly state matters of historical fact with regard to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments about the Korean War last month, where he described China’s support for North Korea as a “victory against US imperialist aggression” while refusing to acknowledge China’s involvement or North Korea’s invasion that caused the war. The foundation of South Korea-China relations could end up undermined if we see a repeat of the situation where China stirs up patriotic sentiments without regard for South Korea.

By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

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

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