Before returning home after a two-day state visit on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a business forum in Seoul. President Park Geun-hye was alongside him. Later in the day, Park hosted a private luncheon for Xi and his wife at a Korean traditional house, a rare hospitability she offers to a visiting head of state.
There are more episodes and events Park’s aides say illustrate a close personal friendship between the two leaders, who are meeting for the fifth time since Park took office in February last year. Xi’s visit to Seoul, first as president, also drew attention because he was the first Chinese leader to visit Seoul before Pyongyang since South Korea and China formed formal ties in 1992.
On the surface, relations between the two countries could not be better. After their summit, both Park and Xi expressed satisfaction and confidence in their relationship and painted a bright picture of the future of the partnership between the neighbors. A post-summit joint communique called for the two sides to form a “mature strategic cooperative partnership.”
The most conspicuous accomplishment in the Park-Xi summit came in the economic realm. The two sides agreed, among others, to complete the negotiations for a free trade agreement by the end of this year and launch a won-yuan direct trading market.
But for all the pomp surrounding the summit, Park and Xi fell short of making progress in their efforts to deal with the most pressing issue ― stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
In their joint news conference, Park said that she and Xi shared the view that they must realize North Korea’s denuclearization and resolutely oppose another nuclear test.
But in an apparent attempt to avoid provoking the North, neither Xi nor the joint communique directly mentioned North Korea. The statement said that “the two sides reaffirmed their firm opposition to development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”
Park’s aides insist that even this represents a progress in China’s position on the nuclear issue. They note that a joint statement issued after their previous summit in Beijing last year did not included the words “firm opposition.”
But replacing a few words in the joint statement hardly reflects a big change in the position of the Chinese government. Beijing also did not clarify what it would or could do to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, including the resumption of the six-nation talks that have been suspended since 2008.
Xi only said that the relevant nations should steadily pursue the six-party talks and hold bilateral and multilateral consultations to solve mutual concerns. This also lacks any progress from the past because China called for “unconditional” reopening of the talks, while South Korea and the United States demanded that Pyongyang first take some action to show its sincerity.
Regarding Japan, the two sides omitted any mention of it in both their news conference and the joint statement. What they did was include an agreement in an appendix to the joint communique to conduct a joint study on wartime sexual enslavement by Japan.
Their virtual silence offered a stark contrast to what the Tokyo government has been doing recently, including the undercutting of an apology for the sex slavery, the declaration of collective self-defense and lifting of some sanctions on the North.
All in all, the Park-Xi summit came amid fast, complex evolution of the regional order in Northeast Asia, including security threats from North Korea, Japan’s rightist expansionism, growing U.S.-China rivalry and Japan’s approach toward North Korea.
It is hoped that the summit with Xi helped Park and her aides fathom what was on the mind of Chinese leaders on such an intricate web of geopolitical issues and chart a foreign policy that serves the best interests of the nation.