Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to visit Seoul next week, his first trip to South Korea since he formally took office in March last year. Technically, he is returning President Park Geun-hye’s state visit to Beijing last June.
Xi’s visit carries significant bearing not only on the bilateral relations between Seoul and Beijing but also on the dynamics in the region.
The Chinese leader is coming to Seoul at a time when Northeast Asia is entangled in a web of diplomatic challenges, from North Korea’s nuclear threat and territorial and historical disputes to Japan’s rightist drive and rivalry between the United States and China.
Xi and Park undoubtedly will have a lot of bilateral agenda to discuss, including the ongoing negotiations on a free trade agreement, but North Korea and Japan will also figure prominently in their summit.
Regarding North Korea, what should be noted is that Xi will be the first Chinese president to visit South Korea before North Korea, its Communist ally.
This should serve as a clear message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that South Korea-China relations and China’s attitude toward North Korea are not what they used to be.
That the Chinese president is breaking the tradition of putting its summit diplomacy priority on North Korea raises hope that Xi will call on the North to abandon its nuclear programs in clearer and stronger terms.
Since Pyongyang threatened early this year to conduct a fourth nuclear test, Xi and other Chinese leaders have made their opposition clear. Xi reaffirmed this position when he met Park in The Hague, Netherlands, in March on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit.
In pursuing a nuclear-free North Korea, Park and Xi are tasked with the urgent job of fine-tuning their positions on the reopening of the six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear programs, which have been suspended since 2008.
Both South Korea and the United States hold the position that North Korea should take action to show its sincerity before the disarmament talks can resume, while China has been calling for flexibility.
In the run-up to Xi’s Seoul visit, there have been vigorous diplomatic activities involving senior diplomats from the participating nations ― South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan. It would be desirable for Park and Xi, based on the recent working-level discussions, to reach a compromise to put the talks back into work.
Another key element of the Park-Xi summit should be Japan, the troublemaker that stirs territorial and historical disputes and pushes a campaign to expand its regional and international power.
Both victims of Japan’s past military expansionism, Seoul and Beijing have been taking similar steps, if not joint ones, on Japanese leaders’ moves to gloss over its past wrongdoings and seek greater role in international stage.
The most recent example of the two countries’ endeavors to counter the Japanese move and set history right is the dedication of the memorial for Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence hero, in Harbin and a Korean Independence Army monument in Xian.
The Park-Xi summit in Seoul would do well to serve as an occasion to put fresh pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his followers to correct their ill-advised rightist campaign that only deepens its isolation in the region.
Because of the isolation, Japan is trying to keep close relations with the United States and even improve ties with North Korea. The U.S., which needs to check China’s growth, tends to be tolerant of Japan.
Under these circumstances, all the major players in the region will keep a close eye on what Xi will bring to the summit with Park, besides a pair of giant pandas he reportedly will present to South Korea in a gesture of goodwill and friendship.