South Korea and China are exploring ways to thaw chilled relations as Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his intention to make a long-anticipated visit to Seoul, a move seen as a Bejing's attempt to mend bilateral ties after Seoul bolsterd its partnerships with Wahington and Tokyo.
During his meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Saturday, Xi also welcomed Seoul's effort to host a trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan and China within this year. The moves are viewed as China's approach to control its relations with South Korea, which is increasingly leaning toward the U.S., while keeping a distance from the strengthening coupling between North Korea and Russia.
According to the prime minister's office, Han and Xi had a 30-minute meeting in Hangzhou on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Asian Games there.
This is the third time that the two countries' presidents and prime ministers met after Yoon became president last year. Yoon and Xi had a summit in November last year and the South Korean leader met Chinese Premier Li Qiang earlier this month.
During Saturday's meeting, Han noted that Seoul seeks "mutual respect, reciprocity and common interests with China" amid geopolitical uncertainties and supply chain disruptions, and will pursue "healthy and mature South Korea-China relations based on rules and orders," according to a South Korean government official.
Xi described South Korea as an inseparable neighbor and expressed his hopes of achieving progress in the strategic partnerships between the two countries.
The government official said Xi brought up the issue of his long-awaited visit to South Korea before Han made the request, saying the Chinese leader promised to "seriously consider" it.
"This means that President Xi knows it is his turn to visit South Korea," the official said.
The last time Xi came to South Korea was during a state visit in July 2014, even though Yoon's predecessor, former President Moon Jae-in, traveled to China twice during his presidency from 2017 to 2022.
Due to this, Yoon invited Xi to visit Seoul during their face-to-face meeting during the 2022 Group of 20 Summit in Bali last November, while Xi responded he will do so when the COVID-19 pandemic eases and asked Yoon to visit China at a convenient time.
Considering that precedent, the fact that Xi brought up the idea is viewed as a sign of progress as the two countries tussle over the location of the next South Korea-China summit. Yoon has reiterated that Seoul is Beijing's equal partner and that bilateral relations, as a result, should be handled accordingly, meaning it is time for Xi to visit Seoul.
During the meeting on Saturday, Xi also expressed his support for Seoul's efforts to host the trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan and China within this year.
The last time the trilateral summit between the Northeast Asian neighbors took place was in 2019, as Seoul's relations with Tokyo deteriorated. After mending ties with Japan, Yoon is seeking to resume the trilateral summit as a tool to control Seoul's relations with Beijing.
To prepare for the trilateral summit, the three countries will hold a senior officials' meeting on Tuesday, involving South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Chung Byung-won, Japan's Senior Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Takehiro Funakoshi and China's Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Nong Rong.
Given the precedents, the Chinese premier will likely attend the proposed trilateral summit, but hopes are growing that this could be a catalyst to Xi's visit to Seoul.
"If the trilateral summit takes place, there will be subsequent bilateral meetings as well," a senior government official said. "This will likely be a link that can result in Xi's visit to Seoul."
Xi's remarks are the latest signs showing that tensions between South Korea and China have been easing quickly in recent months. Experts said these are the outcomes of the complex geopolitical equations surrounding Northeast Asia.
"As South Korea elevated its security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan to a quasi-alliance level during last month's trilateral summit in Camp David, China does not want to become the target," said Lee Dong-gyu, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
"From China's perspective, South Korea is a diplomatic partner who can exercise greater diplomatic leverage -- whether it is an enticement or pressure ? compared to the U.S. and Japan. Beijing may want to adjust the level of cooperation between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan through Seoul."
Another aspect is the recent development in relations between North Korea and Russia. China is reiterating its stance that cooperation between those two countries is "a matter involving those two nations and concerns North Korea-Russia relations," in an apparent effort to keep a certain distance from those ties branded by the international community as "cooperation between rogue nations."
A senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry said that Han and Xi briefly touched on recent developments between North Korea and Russia, but this did not develop into further talks, adding that China's stance is that Pyongyang-Moscow ties are a matter between the two countries.
Against this backdrop, North Korea apparently did not send high-level officials to the Asian Games opening ceremony. Pyongyang has sent 185 athletes in 17 sports events to Hanghzou, with the North's sports minister Kim Il-kuk leading the delegation. During the 2018 Asiad in Indonesia, which was the North's last appearance at the event, Pyongyang sent then-Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong-nam.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said early Sunday that he will visit Pyongyang next month to continue negotiations with his counterpart, as a follow-up measure to the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month.