Missile row casts long shadow as South Korea tries to reboot relations with China
Although Moon Jae-in’s visit this week marks a step forward, analysts warn that underlying tensions between the two sides could resurface
The past week may mark a turning point in Chinese-South Korean relations after a year of tension, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in pledging to mend fences and work together to counter North Korea’s nuclear programmes in a peaceful way.
On Saturday, Moon wrapped up his four-day visit to China, his first since taking office, with a visit to the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, where he was due to visit a newly built Hyundai plant and meet municipal party chief Chen Miner, a protégé and a close ally of Xi.
South Korean officials appeared optimistic about the outcome of the trip, said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang anticipated a “springtime” in relations.
Moon, who brought a star-studded delegation of entertainers and scores of leading businesspeople, hoped his visit could revive economic relations.
But diplomatic observers warned that the situation remained volatile in the face of a bellicose Pyongyang and growing US-China rivalry in the region.
The two Asian neighbours had been at loggerheads over Seoul’s deployment of the Terminal High Area Altitude Defence (THAAD) system, a US-backed anti-missile system that Beijing sees as a strategic threat to its core interests. The dispute resulted in South Korean music and television shows being taken off the Chinese airwaves and group tourism from the mainland banned.
Beijing showed no signs of budging on contentious issues such THAAD and, in an unusual diplomatic gesture, Xi did not immediately accept Moon’s invitation to attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in early February.
But according to a statement from the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, the two leaders have agreed on a four-point set of principles on pursuing a peaceful solution to denuclearise the Korean peninsula through talks and negotiation.
In a significant shift in stance, Xi also agreed to work with Moon to press the North to go back to the negotiation table through sanctions and a commitment to implement UN resolutions in full.
“There was no such consensus between China and South Korea before,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations in Renmin University in Beijing.
“Now it seems China has made some changes in its stance on pressing North Korea and strictly implementing UN sanctions, which was something South Korea wanted.”
While experts said Moon’s visit to Beijing could be a good start in repairing ties strained by the THAAD dispute they also agreed that it needed time and patience before the wounds could be fully healed and trust rebuilt.
Compared with the visit by Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye in 2013, when coverage of the Mandarin-speaking president flooded Chinese online and print media, Beijing seemed to more restrained in its reaction towards Moon.
Chinese media sources said they were told to “be careful” in covering Moon’s activities in China, and non-official Chinese media were denied to access Moon’s speech at Peking University on Friday morning because of “miscommunication between the Chinese and South Korean sides”.
The diplomatic efforts had already been overshadowed by a clash between Chinese security guards and South Korean journalists on Thursday, with two South Korean journalists injured and taken to hospital. The Chinese foreign ministry ordered an investigation into case, Yonhap cited a South Korean official as saying.
Lee Jung-nam, a China affairs expert at Korea University’s Asiatic Research Institute, said it was unlikely Beijing would abandon its opposition towards the deployment of THAAD, and
South Korea was likely to find itself caught between China and the United States as they vied for influence in the region.
“From the economic perspective, China has grown more powerful than it was in 2013, and competition between Chinese and South Korean companies in international markets has intensified,” Lee said. “But the bigger problem comes in security issues as China is getting strong … and is seeking a leadership role in the international community, which means the strategic rivalry between China and the US is expected to be more substantial.
“As an ally of the US and a close neighbour to China, the THAAD issue may be raised again in the future and South Korea would be forced to pick a side.”
Such concerns were also affecting the confidence of South Korean business communities doing business with China, said Lee Kyu-tae, an expert on geopolitics at South Korea’s Catholic Kwandong University.
Hwang Jae-ho, an expert on Northeast Asian regional security at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, agreed that the missile defence system remained a hurdle that both nations needed to overcome.
“If the nuclear crisis escalated, the opposition party [in South Korea] would … ask for a stronger military alliance with the US, and this would definitely hamper the trust building between South Korea and China,” Hwang said.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang