South Korea

China, South Korea likely to hold talks at G20 amid strained ties over missile shield, says diplomat

Ties between two nations damaged over the deployment of a US-developed anti-missile system on the Korean peninsula

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 11:23pm

Top leaders from China and South Korea are likely to hold talks during the G20 summit early next month in a bid to soothe tense relations between the Asian neighbours amid a prolonged row over the deployment of a US-developed anti-missile system, a senior South Korean diplomat said.

But Enna Park, South Korea’s ambassador for public diplomacy, said Beijing first needs to show flexibility over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system to avoid the strained ties between the two nations getting further damaged.

South Korea says the missile shield is needed to defend itself against Pyongyang’s accelerated nuclear weapons programme. Beijing says the system, especially its powerful radar which could be used to track China’s missile systems, poses a threat to its own security.

“We understand some security concerns that China has and we are willing to make further explanation to alleviate Beijing’s concern that THAAD will be used against Chinese interests, but China simply doesn’t want to listen to us,” Park said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

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Park said breaking the diplomatic impasse with China over the US anti-missile system, which has plunged relations to a historical low since the establishment of formal ties 25 years ago, is the biggest challenge for President Moon Jae-in, who took office last month.

“We’ve made it very clear that THAAD will not be part of a US missile defence system [targeting China], but regrettably we haven’t had many chances to explain our stance and China is not yet ready to have in-depth consultations on the issue,” she said.

Her remarks came days ahead of President Moon’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington later this week. Park said their discussions would focus on strengthening their security alliance in the face of growing nuclear threats from North Korea.

Although Moon has said he has no intention to put THAAD on hold or even reverse the deployment as Beijing has repeatedly requested, the new South Korean leader has launched an environmental impact assessment of the anti-missile system, which effectively delays its deployment.

“I don’t think President Moon can easily change the decision and I can hardly imagine there will be any big, sudden change of our policy over THAAD [following the summit between Trump and Moon],” said Park.

It was “very likely” Moon would meet President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg in early July, she added.

The US missile shield and North Korea’s nuclear threats are expected to be high on the agenda for the first summit between Moon and Xi, according to Zhang Liangui, a Chinese expert on Korean affairs at the Central Party School in Beijing.

“The ball is in China’s court and it’ll be hard to see any breakthroughs if China refuses to heed South Korea’s concerns over Pyongyang’s repeated provocations by demanding the abolishment of THAAD as the prerequisite for improving bilateral ties,” Zhang said.

According to the South Korean diplomat, Moon would also be interested in making a trip to China to patch things up over THAAD because “the potential benefit they may get from deeper partnership is much bigger than the single issue of THAAD”.

“Our alliance with the US is the cornerstone of our security and our relationship with China is also indispensable in order to secure peace in the peninsula and to solve North Korea’s nuclear problems.

“It is very regrettable that one single issue of THAAD has overshadowed all the other cooperation. We are suffering from the loss and China’s cutting off normal business relations with South Korean companies does not help the Chinese economy,” she said.

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Beijing’s economic retaliation against South Korean companies, such as the Lotte conglomerate’s Lotte Mart retail stores across China, has stoked anti-Chinese sentiments among Koreans.

According to an opinion poll by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in March, China has for the first time overtaken former coloniser Japan in the ranking of South Koreans’ least favoured countries.

“Our people see Chinese retaliation as a way to twist our arms, which reminded us of the past coercive behaviour of the Chinese empire,” Park said.

“I hope the Chinese position on THAAD is not a form of trend for Beijing to be more assertive in pushing its agenda, which does not help China’s foreign policy goals,” she said.

Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, also expressed concerns about China’s aggressive response to THAAD, which he said has created a negative impact on China’s image and stoked resentment among China’s neighbours, many of whom were traditionally close to Beijing.

“When you alienate your immediate friends and they fear your behaviour, China should think more strategically about how its projection of power is generating negative influence around its neighbourhood. Some people in the West are even suggesting South Korea should get closer to Japan while strengthening its alliance with the US. I am sure China would not like that scenario.

“China used to be a good example for countries like South Korea to imitate, but now our people fear China, how can we follow China’s leadership like before?” he asked.

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North Korea appears to have emerged as a winner as Pyongyang has taken advantage of disagreements and tensions between China, South Korea and Japan, Park noted.

Zhang agreed. “The THAAD issue was actually created by North Korea’s reckless nuclear brinkmanship, which has successfully sown discord between Beijing and Seoul,” he said.

Although there was no clear sign of an imminent solution to the row over THAAD, Park said she remained optimistic about improving relations with China and restoring the two countries’ traditional friendship “because it serves our common interests”.