President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the Republic of Korea
July 3, 2014
Xi Jinping’s reciprocal visit to South Korea following President Park Guen-hye’s State Visit to China in June 2013 amounts to the fifth meeting between the two leaders since their respective inaugurations in 2013. A delegation accompanied President Xi to Seoul, including Xi’s wife, seven high-ranking government officials and 200 Chinese business leaders.
The two leaders issued a joint statement, followed by a joint press conference and a state dinner. On the second day of the two-day visit, President Xi will meet with South Korea’s Prime Minister and National Assembly Speaker, attend a business forum, and deliver a speech at the Seoul National University.
Q1: What are the key issues in the summit?
A1: North Korea, trade, and cultural exchanges. The demonstrated closeness in Sino-South Korean relations under Xi and Park stands in stark contrast to Xi’s distant relationship with the young leader in the North. While Xi has developed a genuine rapport and affection for Park, he has shown nothing but indifference or disdain towards Kim Jong-un.
The short-term discussion almost certainly was over how to stop North Korea from conducting more provocations or nuclear tests. Park likely reiterated her commitment to stand strong against any DPRK belligerence. The longer-term “vision” discussion probably centered on South Korean efforts to “win China” – i.e., draw Beijing into an understanding that its future on the peninsula is with the South and not with the North. It is unlikely that any of this would be expressed publicly by the two leaders, given the sensitive nature of the discussion.
On trade issues, the two leaders renewed their commitment to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement by the end of 2014, even as Seoul has expressed definitive interest in acceding to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after an agreement is reached. For Seoul, the two trade agreements are not a zero-sum game. On the contrary, Koreans probably see themselves as a possible bridge for China’s future consideration of TPP after an agreement with Seoul.
Q2: Do the frequent summits mean that Xi has thrown his lot in with South Korea?
A2: Not exactly. We have witnessed a tactical shift by Xi after the third nuclear test and the execution of Jang Song-thaek. There is not yet evidence of a strategic shift on China’s part, though this is undeniably Park’s aspiration.
Q3: Is the Republic of Korea moving too close to China and away from the US-ROK-Japan trilateral alliance framework?
A3: Though this may be the view of the pundits, it does not appear to be the view of policymakers. US officials this week expressed supreme confidence in the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance and that they have no concerns about Park’s meetings with Xi. The level of trust is that high. China undeniably will try to “win Korea” with this summit – i.e., statements that Seoul and Beijing can make jointly criticizing Japan (and implicitly distancing from the alliance framework, at least on historical issues regarding Japan). But Korea is unlikely to take that bait. Seoul was the only one of the U.S. allies that vetoed China’s attempt at a joint statement at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in May 20-21, 2014 that was disdainful of the alliance system.
Park’s desire for a deepened strategic relationship with China has less to do with her difficulties with Japan and more to do with potential opportunities she sees vis-a-vis North Korea. Whether correct or not, the South Koreans sense some space in Sino-North Korean ties and they are trying to exploit the opportunity to move the needle on China.
Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Ellen Kim is a fellow and assistant director with the Korea Chair.
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