Thursday February 27, 2020

July 7, 2014

Last week, China’s President Xi Jinping visited South Korea. This is the first time a Chinese president visited South Korea before North Korea in his official capacity as president. While, Beijing opened official diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, in deference to North Korea, the Chinese leaders traditionally visit Pynongyang before visiting Seoul. This was South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s fifth meeting with Xi Jinping since she took office.

China’s Visit and Relations with South Korea

For President Xi, this visit to South Korea was not lightly made. It has clear diplomatic meaning and implications. It shows a conscious effort by China to highlight the importance of the South Korea relationship while simultaneously indicating its growing displeasure with North Korea, historically one of China’s strongest allies. It emphasizes the importance of China-South Korea economic ties and shows an interest in creating a stronger strategic relationship –an important move considering the many territorial dispute China is currently involved with in the region.


While in South Korea, Xi Jinping cited the improvements made in China-South Korea relations since diplomatic relations were opened 20 some years ago. He noted that joint economic growth and increased regional stability are two key areas where the two countries can and should work together. Xi also advised continued high-level communication between the two countries, as well as increased people-to-people exchanges and economic cooperation.

Among specific policies discussed was the creation of a free trade agreement. According to a CBS article, “China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and Seoul says two-way trade topped $220 billion last year. That’s larger than the combined value of South Korea’s trade with the United States and Japan.” The two leaders also signed various agreements pledging cooperation in a wide range of areas.

A CCTV article cited President Park as saying, “While the Chinese dream and South Korean dream converge, the peace, stability and prosperity of the northeast Asian region will be promoted.” The South Korean public also views China in an increasingly favorable light. A survey conducted by a South Korean think tank shows that 61% of South Koreans see China as a “cooperative partner” while only 33% view it as a “competitive rival.”

These positive views are supported by a common history of oppression by Japan as an absence of the type of large territorial disputes causing tension between China and much of its other neighbors. China’s increased annoyance with North Korea and positive overtures toward South Korea, this presidential visit included, have also warmed South Korean feelings on China.


China’s Visit and Relations with North Korea


With North Korea’s recent short-range missile test, the overtures by China toward South Korea (and implied snub of North Korea), are especially timely. In these meetings, China was less evasive than it has been in the past about its disapproval of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. China and South Korea issued a joint statement that “The two sides reaffirmed the position that they firmly oppose the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.” They also urged the resumption of the six-party talks originally formed to work towards finding a ways to peacefully and diplomatically incentivize North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.


Before the talks took place, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said, “There will clearly be an expression of the commitment by the two leaders and their governments that North Korea’s nuclear weapons will not be tolerated.” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin assured that “pushing for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and maintaining the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and solving the issue on the Korean peninsula through peaceful means has been China’s goal for many years.”


In recent years, China has seemed to become increasingly disillusioned with the North Korean regime. One of China’s greatest fears is instability on its border. While the Chinese government does not want the North Korean regime to collapse, leading to a huge and undesirable influx of refugees among other strategic issues, it also is wary of potential North Korean aggression. China has increasingly diversified its ties to the Korean Peninsula, pulling away from North Korea. For example, President Xi Jinping still has not met Km Jong Un, North Korea’s leader.


China’s Visit and Relations with Japan

China’s relations with Japan have been extremely tense lately, especially given Japan’s new military strategy and escalation in assertions and actions regarding disputed territorial claims in the East China Sea. China has reacted to these tensions by reasserting its claims to the disputed islands in any way it can and by waging a PR battle against Japan.

China recently worked tirelessly to get UNESCO to preserve historical documentation about Japan’s WWII atrocities against China, including the Nanjing Massacre and wartime sex-slavery. With July 7th, marking the anniversary of Japanese occupation of China in World War II, coverage and commemoration of the “War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing” is filling Chinese news media.

Chinese officials have also made a point of highlighting Japan’s past imperial aggression in meetings with global leaders, including during German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s visit to China this week. Xi Jinping’s trip to South Korea was no exception, especially given South Korea’s similar history with Japan. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule from 1910-1945, so the end of World War II marked an end of Japanese aggression over both South Korea (then a united Korea) and China.


President Xi brought up this shared past while in Seoul, mentioning that “in China, there is a saying, ‘Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future.'” With South Korea and China also having unrelated territorial disputes with China, joining together over remembrance of past Japanese aggression could serve to help bolster these territorial claims.


Despite the fact that North Korea, too, was under shares this same history with South Korea, North Korea and Japan have recently made positive overtures toward each other, likely in large part due to China’s pulling away from North Korea. Japan is still honoring the UN imposed trade embargos on North Korea, but these actions still should not be overlooked. According to an expert in Japanese politics, “the growing pressure from China has changed the political debate within Japan.”

China’s Role in the Region


China’s meeting with South Korea can be seen as an attempt to garner support in the region. The question is, what type of regional actor is China attempting to be. According to one expert, “In some ways the budding closeness between Xi and Park echoes much older patterns in East Asia, when China exercised a relatively benign hegemony over many of its neighbors.”

Others, however, see a more aggressive tinge to China’s actions. A former U.S. deputy secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Evans J.R. Revere, described this trip as “another effort by China to not so subtly send a message to the United States that it is looking to reshape the region and is willing to throw its weight around in ways that demonstrate China is the major player” and asserted that any attempt to “drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States is not going anywhere.”

It’s hard to say for sure how China’s visit to South Korea plays into its overall role in the Asia Pacific. What is clear, is that this trip has gained the attention of the countries interested in the region and will definitely have an impact on the foreign policy and decision-making of many of these countries moving forward, the United States included.

For more information on Xi Jinping’s Trip to South Korea, see the following news articles:

CBS News – “With Seoul visit, China leader sends message north

Reuters – “China’s Xi heads to Seoul with North Korea on his mind

CCTV – “Xi, Park pledge to enrich China-South Korea strategic cooperative partnership

Wall Street Journal – “South Koreans Accentuate the Positive on China

Huffington Post – “China’s President Xi Jinping Visits South Korea, Leaders Slam Nuclear Ambitions Of North

Reuters – “China’s Xi invites South Korea joint effort on Japan’s wartime past

U.S. News – “Korean Peninsula a Dangerous Area for Diplomacy

New York Times – “Chinese President’s Visit to South Korea Is Seen as Way to Weaken U.S. Alliances

For Chinese language news on this topic, see the sources below:

People’s Daily (人民日报) – 习近平与朴槿惠共同出席中韩经贸合作论坛并发表重要讲话


Deutsche Welle (德国之声) – 习近平首尔演讲 强调中韩共同血泪史

New York Times (纽约时报)- 习近平首尔大学演讲亲韩远日