China and the World

 A new chapter

Can Beijing win over new South Korean leader?

South Korea - New President Inauguration Dinner

Yoon: South Korea’s new president

It’s not often that top Chinese leaders leave the country these days.  President Xi Jinping, for example, hasn’t left China since he visited Myanmar in January 2020, a few days before the first Covid lockdown in Wuhan was implemented.  Since then, diplomats like Foreign Minister Wang Yi are the only high ranking officials to have undertaken regular overseas trips.

So, it was significant that Wang Qishan, Chinese vice-president and close ally of Xi Jinping, was picked to attend the inauguration of South Korea’s new leader Yoon Suk-yeol this week. Wang is the highest ranking Chinese official to attend any South Korean presidential inauguration, and by sending him Beijing is hoping to dissuade Yoon from following through on campaign promises to take a harder line against China.

Relations between China and South Korea hit a low in 2017 after Seoul announced its intention to deploy an American anti-ballistic missile defence system known as THAAD to counter growing threats from North Korea. Beijing strongly objected to the deployment on the grounds that it could also be used to limit China’s military capabilities and it quietly encouraged Chinese citizens to boycott South Korean products, leading to commercial losses estimated at over $7 billion.

Some of that damage was ameliorated by Moon Jae-in – the outgoing South Korean President – who saw his country as a “shrimp between two whales” and who tried to balance relations between China (a  strategically important economic partner) and the US (a formal ally and security guarantor).

In his presidential campaign Yoon criticised Moon for undermining South Korea’s all-important relationship with Washington and in recent statements he has made it clear that he wants South Korea – the world’s 10th largest economy – to play a more active role in world affairs, including providing more aid to Ukraine and working with democratic allies to “expand freedom and human rights”.

The 61 year-old has also indicated that he would expand THAAD systems in South Korea, reinvigorate joint military exercises with the US and even consider applying to join the Quad – a strategic security dialogue group featuring Australia, India, Japan and the US.

Yoon has also said he wishes to repair relations with Japan which have been particularly strained since South Korean courts began hearing compensation claims from Koreans forced to work for Japanese occupiers during the Second World War. Japan maintains the issue was fully resolved in 1965 with a one-off payment of $300 million and the signing of a treaty that normalised bilateral relations.

Beijing will be wary of an improvement of ties between Seoul and Tokyo (both US allies), as it would naturally consolidate a three-way alliance with Washington.

Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa attended Yoon’s inauguration as well. After Hayashi’s meeting with Yoon, during which he  delivered a personal letter from Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Japan’s foreign ministry said both sides agreed they have no time to waste “in improving Japan-South Korea relations”.

So what did Beijing offer by way of a counterbalance? First up was a letter of congratulations from Xi and an invitation for Yoon to visit China at a “mutually convenient time”. Then came a “five-point proposal for further developing bilateral relations”, Xinhua said, although the points were vague and largely boiled down to the two sides trying to communicate more.

“China and South Korea should enhance strategic communication and high-level exchanges, as well as further invigorate dialogue and exchanges at all levels,” was step number one.

Perhaps the most concrete part of the plan was Beijing’s offer to “to strengthen cooperation on Korean Peninsula issues”. Beijing is a traditional ally of North Korea and is one of the few countries that has diplomatic sway in Pyongyang.  

Wang also floated the idea of “deepening practical cooperation in industrial supply chains” in response to concerns that Korean firms could move manufacturing out of China due to local Covid lockdowns and the trade war with the US – which has led to US export controls on essential high-tech parts like semiconductors.

Intensifying competition between the world’s two largest economies has also prompted the US to create a regional economic alliance known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework which is intended to encourage supply chains that exclude Chinese involvement.

Joe Biden is expected to announce some of the details of the ‘Framework’ during the US leader’s upcoming trip to Asia, which includes a stop in South Korea.

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