South Korea

More time and effort needed on Beijing, Seoul relations

Expectations for the summit between Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in proved too high, and at the end of the day pledges are hollow without concrete commitments

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, 1:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, 1:40am

South Korean leader Moon Jae-in hoped his trip to China last week would bring about a swift end to chilly relations. But while his summit with President Xi Jinping represented the start of a thaw, much more will be needed to improve ties. Promises to reposition foreign affairs more towards Beijing have to be formalised, a challenging task given a long-standing security alliance with Washington. The difficulties were highlighted by media portrayals at home that the visit was a disaster and the flight on Monday of five Chinese warplanes into airspace claimed by Seoul, which prompted South Korea to scramble fighter jets.

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The alleged incursion, played down by Beijing as a routine mission, compounded disappointment about a trip for which expectations should have been low. Officials had made clear that there would be no statement or press conference after the meeting. Much was made by South Korean media that Moon was met on arrival by a low-ranking Chinese official, seen as a snub. Security guards are also claimed to have assaulted photographers accompanying Moon to a trade show, a matter being investigated.

Moon’s arrival coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre and Beijing’s top officials were understandably attending commemorative events. What was achieved during talks appeared underwhelming, with the focus being on North Korea and pledges not to tolerate war on the Korean peninsula, to seek resolution of the conflict through dialogue, to push for denuclearisation, and a recognition that a peaceful outcome relied on improved inter-Korean ties. Barely mentioned was the cause of the freeze – South Korea’s deployment last year of the American anti-missile shield known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, which Beijing sees as a threat to national security and the reason for its costly unofficial sanctions.

There is a saying among South Koreans that their country is like a shrimp, in danger of being crushed by two whales, a reference to leading economic partner China, and foremost security ally the United States. North Korean nuclear and missile tests aimed at the US and the South prompted deployment of THAAD, but the fallout from the Chinese sanctions have cut economic growth by an estimated 0.4 per cent. There was a sense of relief in October when Seoul and Beijing agreed to mend ties, the impetus being a pledge by the South not to threaten Chinese security interests.

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But pledges are hollow without concrete commitments; the lack of progress made by Moon revealed the continuing fragility of relations. Beijing and Seoul have shown a willingness to work together on defusing the North Korean crisis and that will build trust. Mending fences will take time, effort and greater pragmatism.