Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to South Korea on 3-4 July 2014 is symbolic of a nascent but important change in East Asian political equations. For the first time, a Chinese President visited South Korea before meeting with the North Korean leader. Many observers feel that this is an important shift in Chinese policy towards the Korean peninsula. The growing Chinese exchanges with South Korea in economic and other spheres are not new, but Beijing has always maintained that this does not mean a dilution of its relations with Pyongyang, which has until now been characterised as ‘a special relation’. However, it seems that the recent North Korea behaviour has annoyed China decisively.
North Korea of late appears to not be listening to Chinese suggestions and seems to be creating problems for Chinese interests in regional politics. The third nuclear test, execution of Chang Seong-thaek and several missile tests might be seen as an embarrassing situation for China; China has thus been moving closer to South Korean position. Beijing stressed a “nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula” during the summit meet with the South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Beijing in 2013. However, he was more direct during the recent visit to Seoul and expressed that China would not like “any development of nuclear weapons on the peninsula.” It is an important achievement for South Korea, which wanted China to be more direct in opposing the North Korean nuclear programme.
Xi Jinping has seemingly been trying to use the growing gap between the US and South Korea over the aggressive Japanese postures on territorial, history and security issues. The US has not been keen to stop Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s revisionist behaviour. China perceives it an important opportunity to reach out to South Korea, who is an important partner in the US-Japan-South Korea security partnership. The Chinese attempt to use South Korean discontent with the US over conceding to the aggressive Japanese postures would not be easy and immediate but in the long-term it may bring very important changes in the regional political equations. Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul has challenged US foreign policy-makers to reconsider their generous concessions to Japan.
Xi Jinping’s visit also has to do with the growing assertiveness of Japan. China is aware that South Korea has been equally worried about the Japanese claim over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, the review of Kano’s statement, insensitive statements on the comfort women issue, and regular visits to Yasukuni shrine by Japanese leaders. One day before Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul, Japan reinterpreted its constitutional provision and expressed that it has every right to keep defence forces. China is also interested in using South Korean anger against Japan for deciding to conduct a joint investigation with North Korea on the Japanese abductees who were abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s. Japan has relaxed some sanctions on North Korea in the context of this joint investigation.
Xi Jinping has been very subtle in his approach to reach out to South Korea. He has been trying to placate South Korea by indicating to Seoul that the US gives more priority to its alliance with Japan than South Korea. He is also sending a clear signal to South Korea that if Seoul reconsiders its alliance with the US, China is also ready to re-think its relations with North Korea. However, China is aware that South Korean connections with the US and Japan are strong and it would not be easy or straight forward for South Korea to change sides from the US to China. In the immediate future, China would be satisfied if South Korea takes up more autonomous foreign policy-making. Xi Jinping has been working to create a broader plan for an alternate Asian economic and security architecture in which he emphasises the notion of ‘Asia for Asians’, and any change in South Korean policy towards autonomy would be a welcome development for China.
From the South Korean perspective as well, its relationship with China is quite delicate. Economic cooperation between the two countries has been indispensable for Seoul. Furthermore, its most reliable partner (the US) is not doing enough to address its concern vis-à-vis Japan. There is a sense of betrayal in South Korea towards the recent American generosity towards Shinzo Abe. South Korea therefore wants to express its displeasure by dealing more closely with China. Moreover, South Korea sees a golden opportunity to break the close relations between China and North Korea, which would make North Korean survival more problematic. However, Seoul in still not prepared to give up its alliance with the US and the warm welcome to the Chinese President in Seoul is basically a political game to send messages to the US and Japan.
In brief, a chessboard in East Asian politics have been laid out on which both South Korea and China have been moving carefully, with the aware that it would be too early to trust each other at this point of time. However, the future course of East Asian relations would depend on how the US and Japan respond to these moves.