|President Moon Jae-in, right, greets Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. Yonhap|
Korea, China working to improve conditions for Xi's visit
By Do Je-hae
Korea and China agreed to strengthen ties ahead of the 2022 30th anniversary of their opening of diplomatic relations and cooperate further on bilateral issues of concern such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during a visit to Seoul by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
But the highly anticipated visit by the foreign minister did not bring much headway with regard to Chinese President Xi Jingping's reciprocal visit to Korea. The Chinese minister arrived in Seoul late Wednesday to meet with President Moon Jae-in and officials in charge of security and diplomacy, after a two-day visit to Japan where he met with new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
President Moon underlined China's role in moves to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula during his meeting with Wang at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. "In particular, I would like to express my gratitude for China's constructive role and cooperation in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. Together with the international community, including China, our government will continue efforts to end the war on the Korean Peninsula, and work toward complete denuclearization and a permanent peace," Moon said, according to press pool reports.
As a way to enhance regional cooperation while promoting diplomacy with North Korea, Moon also reiterated his proposal made at the U.N. General Assembly in September for the establishment of a Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health, in which North Korea could participate as a member along with China, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea. On the same day, the presidential office held a National Security Council meeting presided over by national security adviser Suh Hoon to discuss the public health cooperation initiative. Moon also called for China's cooperation for the annual Korea-China-Japan summit which Seoul is planning to host next month.
In addition, he highlighted his support for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. "The President expressed his commitment to actively cooperate for the successful hosting of the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics, saying they will greatly contribute to peace and stability in Northeast Asia," presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said in a statement after the meeting, which lasted about an hour from 4:00 p.m.
Wang delivered Chinese President Xi's message to Moon expressing his appreciation for the two countries' effective bilateral cooperation on COVID-19. The Chinese leader also mentioned Seoul's invitation to visit Korea. "Xi thanked Moon for the invitation for the state visit and said that he would like to visit Korea when conditions permit," Kang said.
Wang, who formerly served as Chinese envoy to Japan, arrived at Cheong Wa Dae after what he called a meeting of very "rich outcomes" with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. The two countries agreed to create a joint committee to design a roadmap for the development of bilateral relations on the occasion of the upcoming 30th anniversary, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
After his meeting with Kang, Wang underlined that conditions need to improve before Xi's visit to Seoul, indicating that the COVID-19 situation worldwide must be completely managed before such a visit can be realized.
The two ministers meeting and lunch covered various issues, such as the cooperation on COVID-19 responses; ways to promote bilateral relations including high-level exchanges; and Korean Peninsula issues including denuclearization.
Korea's strategic value
Wang's visit to Korea comes slightly more than three months after Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party director Yang Jiechi, a politburo member, visited Busan in August to meet with Suh Hoon, chief of the presidential National Security Office. Wang's visits to Japan and Korea, two the most important U.S. allies in the region, this week has grabbed headlines here, coming amid the transition of power in the U.S.
The successive visits of China's key diplomatic policymakers to a single country is considered extremely rare. Experts say this shows the rising strategic importance of Korea from Beijing's perspective at a time of U.S-China competition. "The most important reason for the visit to Korea is the U.S.-China strategic competition," Kim Heung-kyu, professor of political science and diplomacy at Ajou University and director of the university's U.S.-China Policy Institute, told The Korea Times. "Korea is a linchpin for the U.S., but it is a linchpin for China as well. Korea is in a key position in the U.S.-China strategic competition."
The Chinese foreign minister faced multiple questions about the U.S.-China competition after his meeting with the Korean foreign minister. "The U.S. is not the only country in the world. There are 190 countries, all of them independent, sovereign countries," Wang said.
President Xi congratulated Biden Wednesday on his election, saying he wants a "non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation" with the U.S. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, Xi said in a statement, "Promoting healthy and stable development of China-U.S. relations not only serves the fundamental interests of the people in both countries, but also meets the common expectation of the international community."
But the dominant view among expert here is that the two superpowers' rivalry will continue to escalate, which is expected to add to Korea's diplomatic woes as it strives to restore its alliance with the U.S. and improve relations with China at the same time.
|Presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min, right, a former Korean ambassador to China, greets Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. Yonhap|
Wang's schedule in Korea is seen to be more packed than in Japan, where he undertook official engagements with Suga and the Japanese foreign minister. In Korea, he is meeting not just with the President and Kang, but also getting together with former ruling Democratic Party of Korea leader Lee Hae-chan and presidential special advisor on foreign affairs Moon Chung-in, both of whom have significant influence on the ruling camp.
His various meetings with key figures in the President's circle shows Beijing's willingness to solidify ties with Seoul on North Korea's denuclearization and other primary issues regarding regional security ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joseph Biden.
|Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha speaks during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the ministry's headquarters in central Seoul, Thursday. Yonhap|
"The larger mission for the Chinese foreign minister to visit Seoul and Tokyo is to stabilize and strengthen China's ties to these two neighbors amid the pandemic and in the wake of Biden winning the U.S. election," Zhao Ma, associate professor of modern Chinese history at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., told The Korea Times.
"Beijing appears cautious in working with the Suga government in part because the prime minister is new, having just started his term. Beijing also remembers that Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe developed a friendly relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump at both the personal and government level, which solidifies Japan's role as the cornerstone of America's strategic interest in East Asia. Beijing is not sure how much it can sway Tokyo's loyalty away from the forthcoming Biden administration," said Ma.
"In contrast, Beijing has more to work with and to expect from Seoul. President Moon disagreed with President Trump on a host of issues from trade to Seoul's contribution to American defense cost-sharing on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean conservatives are not happy with the way Trump flattered (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un," he added. "Both Beijing and Seoul share a common goal of denuclearization through diplomacy. Wang Yi is trying to seize on these issues to solidify and expand Beijing's ties to Seoul."
|Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a meeting with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in central Seoul, Thursday. Yonhap|