Korea and China held their 13th round of free trade talks in Beijing last week, making little headway in resolving differences over sensitive matters.
Negotiators from the two countries have been under pressure to reach a deal by the end of this year, as agreed by President Park Geun-hye and her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during their summit in Seoul in July. Speculation has been raised that the two sides may conclude a bilateral free trade accord in time for a meeting between Park and Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference to be held in Beijing next month.
After last week’s talks, Korean and Chinese officials struck a slightly different tone on the outcome of their discussion.
China’s Commerce Ministry said in a statement posted on its website that the two sides “have made progress in the trade of goods, services, investment and rules of origin.” The statement further said China and Korea would continue to maintain consultations to achieve the completion of the negotiations before the year-end target.
Seoul’s trade officials, however, said they would place securing practical interests ahead of meeting the envisaged deadline for concluding a deal. They said progress “has been made little by little” on sensitive issues.
Despite making headway in quarantine standards, customs procedures and other less sensitive areas last week, the two sides still remain far apart in settling differences over key sectors ― agriculture and fisheries for Korea and manufacturing industries such as automobiles and machinery for China.
It is not wrong for Korean negotiators to focus on the content of the deal rather than holding themselves to the year-end target. But it is also sensible to try and make the most of the momentum provided by the leaders of the two countries. China’s push to reach a deal by the end of the year may help Korea secure an agreement with more favorable terms.
Korea has seen its exports to China, its largest trading partner, fall this year as its overall shipments abroad continue to grow. This worrisome trend calls on Korean exporters to go beyond expecting benefits from the free trade deal to strengthen efforts to enhance their competitiveness and adapt to changes in China’s economic conditions.