When Chinese actress Tang Wei and South Korean director Kim Tae-yong announced their engagement last week, social media sites on both sides of the Yellow Sea lit up with chatter.
But what started out as a conversation about a celebrity wedding often morphed into something else: a discussion about Beijing’s respective relations with Pyongyang and Seoul.
The timing of the engagement news helped. The following day Xi Jinping was due to embark on a state visit to Seoul – the first time that a Chinese president has gone to South Korea before making a trip to North Korea.
But Chinese netizens didn’t seem too bothered that their leader was snubbing their badly-behaved Cold War ally and flirting with its more dynamic twin.
“It’s time for China to abandon North Korea, South Korea is the better friend,” wrote one user on the popular microblogging website Sina Weibo.
“Korea, we offer you Princess Tang, we hope we can be friends forever,” wrote another.
So is Beijing moving closer to Seoul?
Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye – who speaks Mandarin – have met five times since Xi became president last March and trade between the two nations now amounts to $270 billion, more than South Korea’s trade with Japan and the United States combined.
Some 60,000 South Korean students are studying Mandarin in China and 3.9 million Chinese travel to South Korea every year to study, shop, get plastic surgery or even take their driving test (it’s easier to pass there; see WiC233).
At home the Chinese are avid fans of South Korean products, lapping up Hangul soap operas, K-Pop music, white goods and mobilephones. Rather surprisingly even senior politicians such as Wang Qishan, the anti-graft tsar, have admitted to a fondness for Korean drama. Earlier this year Wang revealed that he watches My Love From The Stars himself, bemoaning that Chinese TV doesn’t produce anything quite as good.
In fact, Beijing has been on a charm offensive to win over the South Koreans. And it seems to be working. The Asian Institute of Policy Studies published a report recently showing Korean favourability ratings for China and Xi Jinping hitting new highs. Meanwhile Park Geun-Hye has said that her country’s future “lies with China”.
What does China want from this relationship?
President Xi says that the two countries have a “community of common interests” suggesting the two nations will focus on what they agree on and sideline most of what they don’t.
Indeed this is pretty much the path that the two countries have followed to get this far.
Seoul knows it cannot push Beijing too hard on its relationship with North Korea – at least not in public – and China understands not to probe too strongly on South Korea’s close alliance with the United States.
South Korea is home to some 28,000 American troops and is still formally at war with China’s traditional ally, Pyongyang.
Xi seems to have arrived in Seoul with two major goals. One is to establish a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea to mirror the one Seoul signed with Washington in 2007. The other is to drive a wedge between America’s two key partners in the region by stoking anti-Japanese sentiment.
Here, at least, is a fertile area of common ground. Earlier this year China opened a monument to An Jung-geun, a Korean nationalist who assassinated a Japanese official in Harbin in 1909. While he was in Seoul last week, Xi also suggested that China would be celebrating the seventieth anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese next year. “In the first half of the last century Japanese militarists launched a campaign of barbaric aggression against South Korea, annexing the whole peninsula and occupying half of China,” Xi said, reminding his audience that in the struggle with the Japanese that followed, “the people of our two countries supported each other in life and death.”
He even looked back as far as the 1590s in invoking the common enemy, recalling how China’s Ming Dynasty sent troops to Korea during another Japanese invasion.
More predictably, the speech skipped over more recent experience, when China sided with the North against Seoul in the Korean War.
China is at odds with almost all of its neighbours but its relations with South Korea are among its healthiest in the region. But as the Wall Street Journal pointed out this week, there are some key points of difference between them. For example, China and South Korea do not openly discuss President Park’s ultimate vision for her country: a peninsula reunited under Seoul’s leadership. That’s because Beijing is cautious about any effort to bring the two Koreas together, fearing that it could lead to war and refugee chaos, or even the potential arrival of US troops on its borders.
“In other words, despite Xi’s stated desire to re-engineer the region’s security arrangements, he’s not interested in fundamentally altering the status quo in one of the most dangerous corners of the globe. Xi, apparently, is prioritising Chinese domestic security interests over cooperation with Seoul,” the Wall Street Journal wrote.
What can Seoul get out of this relationship?
In the immediate future Park is probably looking for greater access to the Chinese market for Korean businesses, and more visits from Chinese tourists.
But longer term she may also hope to sway Beijing on the issue of the North and reunification.
However, she has also made it clear that closer ties to China won’t be allowed to damage her country’s relationship with the US. “Based on the past 60 years of unwavering trust built between the two nations, our alliance will advance further as we effectively handle the challenges in the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the world,” she said during US President Obama’s visit to Seoul in April.
Park may suspect, on the other hand, that Beijing is losing patience with Pyongyang. She has grounds for taking this view. In the last two years her northern neighbour carried out a third nuclear test and continued with its ballistic missile programme, despite Chinese and international condemnation.
If South Korean military reports are to be believed, one of those missiles almost collided with a China Southern passenger jet as it was about to land in the city of Shenyang in March.
The North Koreans also seized a Chinese fishing vessel and its 16-man crew last May, holding it for ransom. That looked like an act of brazen ingratitude when you consider China is North Korea’s biggest source of aid and investment.
But perhaps Kim Jong-un’s greatest crime in Chinese eyes was the execution of his uncle Jang Song-Thaek last December. Jang was said to be close to China and a proponent of Deng Xiaoping-style economic reforms – a programme that Beijing was keen for Pyongyang to consider.
But The Diplomat magazine has reported that – after Jang’s execution – the North Korean Worker’s Party issued a directive ordering its officials to “abandon the Chinese Dream”.
“Today’s Chinese Communist Party is a Xi Jinping-style party of selfishness, pursuing reforms and opening, and therefore choosing to put money before ideology,” it apparently said.
But if Park was hoping Xi would issue a sterner rebuke to North Korea about its nuclear programme during his trip, she would have been disappointed.
Xi trod carefully, calling for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, rather than mentioning North Korea by name or demanding that it drop its nuclear plans.
The strongest statement Xi made was: “China opposes the existence of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and insists all issues, including nuclear weapons, of the Korean peninsula are resolved through conversation and negotiation.”
Instead analysts wondered if Xi was sending a more oblique reference to Pyongyang in his comment that a “good neighbour is better than a distant cousin”.
The implication: although Beijing won’t say so directly, it is fed up with North Korea.
So was the trip a success?
In many ways, yes.
China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan, charmed her hosts by suggesting that, in his younger days, her husband resembled the Korean actor who plays the lead role in My Love from the Stars. Xi was also applauded for bringing 200 business leaders with him – in popstar style the group was quickly dubbed the “super boy band”.
Indeed, the greatest long-term consequence of the trip may come from these business links. Xi visited Samsung and LG for tours led by Samsung’s heir apparent Jay L Lee and LG chairman Koo Bon-moo. The Wall Street Journal thought this important because both men “rarely make public appearances”. At a conference afterwards Xi declared that “South Korea’s technology is incredible”.
Much was made of the complementary nature of South Korean and Chinese businesses. One of those who joined Xi’s delegation was internet tycoon Robin Li. He told Xinhua that his search engine firm Baidu already worked closely with Samsung and the South Korean entertainment industry. He added that the combination of China’s huge internet population with South Korea’s innovation and advanced telecoms infrastructure will create plenty of new opportunities. “An old Chinese proverb says that if two people unite as one, their strength is powerful enough to cut metal, which can be used to describe the future of China and South Korea’s cooperation in the field of internet,” Li said.
Closer economic ties will have wider ramifications. In many cases, Japanese and South Korean firms compete in the same industries and an FTA with Seoul could give the Koreans an edge in the China market.
An FTA would also put Taiwan in an awkward position. It shelved its own free trade pact with the mainland in June after thousands of students stormed government buildings in Taipei. “Should such a deal [a China-South Korea FTA] take effect before an agreement between Taiwan and China is concluded, some Taiwanese businesses would be forced to abandon the Chinese market, especially in the flat panel, machinery and petrochemical sectors,” the Taipei Times has suggested.
And as both Xi and Park sought to play up the economic benefits of a closer partnership, issues that might have been more contentious were shelved. There was no mention, for example, of STX Dalian, a Korean shipbuilder that has just filed for bankruptcy owing several months salary to its Chinese workers.
Cynics will say that the meetings lacked tangible outcomes. The main announcement was that direct renminbi-won trading will begin in Seoul, with the Bank of Communications appointed to handle the clearing. A few days prior to the trip the Chinese port of Dalian also announced that it will set up a new development zone to take advantage of its proximity to the two Koreas.
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