Seoul faces balancing act as China ties develop

South Korea makes most of Beijing's impatience with North and shared anger at Japan, but US position in region will affect how ties develop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:13am

Senior officials from China and South Korea will hold talks over the coming days to boost their cooperation on regional security, following a landmark visit to Seoul by President Xi Jinping.

The exchanges of South Korean Deputy Defence Minister Baek Seung-joo and Second Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Cho Tae-yul with their Chinese counterparts illustrate that while the two nations are upbeat about their bilateral ties, they face complications amid strengthening US-South Korean military ties and uncertainty over North Korea.

Baek is due in China on Tuesday for strategic defence talks with PLA deputy chief of general staff Wang Guanzhong as part of a three-nation tour.

Cho will arrive in Beijing tomorrow for a two-day visit, during which he is expected to ask China to send senior officials to a forum hosted by South Korea in October on regional peace and cooperation.

The visits of Baek and Cho come soon after Xi held talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul early this month.

Xi's visit indicated Beijing was shifting its attention from North Korea to the South as the Chinese president broke a tradition of his predecessors by not visiting Pyongyang first on an official visit to the Korean peninsula.

There have been no top-level visits between Beijing and Pyongyang since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2012. Xi's trip to Seoul is being interpreted as a sign of Beijing's growing frustration with the volatile hardline state following a series of nuclear tests and missile launches.

"The trip shows that Beijing is treating [North Korea] like any other country, instead of stressing the so-called brotherly ties that was common in past years," said Sun Xingjie , an expert in Korean peninsula affairs at Jilin University's Institute of International Studies.

An Asia-based diplomat who did not wish to be named said Beijing had been exerting pressure through diplomatic channels to stop Pyongyang launching a fourth nuclear test after it conducted its third in 2013.

South Korea hoped China could send a tougher signal to the North, but was also aware of Beijing's need to strike a balance between Seoul and Pyongyang.

A joint statement issued by the two nations after their meeting did not include tough rhetoric directed at Pyongyang.

Instead, it said only that Beijing and Seoul supported a denuclearised Korean peninsula and called on parties including North Korea to create favourable conditions to resume stalled nuclear talks that include the US, Japan and Russia.

The six-nation talks have been dormant since late 2008. South Korea, the US and Japan demanded Pyongyang show its sincerity to seek denuclearisation before the talks could resume, but Pyongyang demanded there be no pre-conditions.

"On one hand, the statement warns Pyongyang against provocations," the diplomat said. "On the other hand, the stress on creating favourable conditions also means that South Korea should not be too harsh towards the North."

Cui Zhiying, a professor of Korean affairs at Tongji University in Shanghai, said China still believed that taking tough action against Pyongyang would create further uncertainties on the Korean peninsula. Sun said Beijing would not go hand in hand with Seoul against Pyongyang while Seoul still depended on its security alliance with Washington.

Lee Jung-nam, a professor at the Asiatic Research Institute at Korea University, said Xi's trip had boosted Sino-South Korean ties, but could also place Seoul in an ambiguous position.

Xi's visit to Seoul came at a time of souring ties for both nations with Japan over territorial disputes and wartime grievances, and amid heightened suspicions between China and the US over the activities of each in the Asia Pacific region.

The US has urged Seoul and Tokyo to improve their relationship as their worsening ties could play into China's hands, while Seoul is aware that its strategic value to Beijing will be lessened should Sino-US relations return to a more positive track, Lee said.

"The development of ties between South Korea and China has implications for the relationship between South Korea, the US and Japan.

"South Korea needs to sort out how to make that balance after Xi's trip," Lee said.