Beijing woos SeoulChinese President Xi Jinping will visit South Korea July 3-4. It is the first time the highest-ranking Chinese leader has visited Seoul before Pyongyang since normalization of ties between South Korea and China in 1992. Xi will be reciprocating President Park Geun-hye’s visit to China last June. Seoul-Beijing ties have visibly strengthened under the two leaders. The two countries are reportedly mulling taking the bilateral relationship to a higher level, which in Chinese diplomatic lingo is called a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”
Xi sent an unequivocal message by choosing to visit South Korea before North Korea in his first visit to the peninsula since he took office in November 2012. Beijing wants to improve ties with Seoul. The United States has reinforced its relationship with Japan to contain China’s influence in the region. Washington has been trying to use the traditional U.S.-South Korea-Japan security and political alliance to deter China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Japan’s relations with South Korea and China are at a nadir because of historical and territorial disputes. China and Japan have reached near skirmish-level relations over territorial claims in the East China Sea. Beijing needs to pull Seoul closer to loosen the tripartite alliance among South Korea, the United States and Japan, and build a joint front against Tokyo. That is why Xi is making a charm offensive on South Korea. He will be accompanied by the first lady, another symbol of how important South Korea is to China.
The South Korea-Chinese relationship has expanded sharply in a short period of time, especially on the economic front. Visitors to each country reached 8.29 million last year, compared with 130,000 at the time the nations signed diplomatic ties. Trade surged to $274.2 billion from $6.4 billion.
After last year’s summit in Beijing, the two leaders announced they would strengthen diplomatic, security, military and political cooperation. But there has not been practical progress. The North Korean nuclear issue played as a major stumbling block. Improvement in the bilateral relationship will remain mostly rhetorical if Beijing does not act more aggressively to solve the North Korea nuclear issue.
What good is an upgraded relationship with Beijing if it cannot stop Pyongyang making nuclear tests and launching long-range missiles? The Chinese president can immediately win the hearts of South Koreans if he pledges to prevent North Korea from further nuclear provocations.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 27, Page 34