It remains unclear whether Moon Jae-in’s recent visit to China from Wednesday to Saturday has brought Sino-South Korean relations back on track. However, the visit has given a much-required boost to the two countries’ low-spirited bilateral ties.
If anything, Moon’s visit has certainly encouraged both sides to return to their core economic-oriented engagement without neglecting the need to have a “peaceful” northeast Asian security environment that has always been their backbone in the post-Cold War period.
Moon’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was the third such occasion after their meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany in July 2017 and at the APEC forum in Vietnam recently. Though it would be impulsive to immediately anticipate “peace” in the region after this Moon-Xi meeting, it still goes without stating that Sino-South Korean bilateral ties continue to be most important for northeast Asian security.
A deterioration in this relationship has always had an impact on the Northeast Asian peace process. In fact, it is the economic engagement between them that has been the promising aspect of East Asia. Although their relations have not been in the best shape lately, China still remains South Korea’s largest trading partner.
Moreover, Moon’s visit witnessed both sides showing interest in returning to their original economic-oriented partnership, which might have gotten reconfigured over the last few years. Emphasis was given to expand the mandate of the China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement that was signed in 2015. Moon endorsed Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, and views were exchanged on how Seoul could find consonance between China’s BRI and South Korea’s New Northern Policy, a very important aspect of Seoul’s newly proposed Northeast Asia Plus Community foreign policy.
Though the efficacy of real-time cooperation between the BRI and NAPC is yet to be seen, Moon’s declaration to cooperate with the BRI was a rather big call. With Moon’s declaration came an assurance from Xi that Beijing should not allow the northeast Asian security to go out of hand and must take action on North Korea over its missile and nuclear programs.
The visit came at a crucial time, when Northeast Asian security is on a war path -- at least verbally. Therefore, gaining good political understanding of both Northeast Asia security and the deteriorating Sino-South Korean bilateral relations was the top priority for Moon. The focus was mainly on four principles: deterring war on the Korean Peninsula, its denuclearization, the promotion of peace and dialogue, and improvement of inter-Korean relations.
Unlike his predecessor, Moon has always appeared to pursue a more balanced approach toward both China and the United States. Even though South Korea is likely to maintain a pro-US centric foreign policy, it is also hesitant to employ an anti-China foreign policy.
Moon has been quite consistent with his approach toward China. Although he did not reverse the decision on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, he has not downplayed the importance of China in the Northeast Asian security calculus.
During his speech at the Korber Foundation on July 7, 2017, he stated how he enjoys a consensus with the Chinese President Xi on addressing the Korean Peninsula crisis through an “inter-Korean dialogue” initiative. That had not only prompted a new context for Sino-South Korean relations, but also showed how Moon’s personal rapport with Xi holds the key to a buoyant Northeast Asia.
There is no doubt that China’s centrality in Northeast Asia is an important constituent of Seoul’s foreign policy. Moon’s visit was a strategic necessity not only to convince China about the significance of the Northeast Asia plus Community, but to also have a forward-looking foreign policy toward China. In fact, the visit was to reassure Beijing that Seoul under Moon would not like to employ an anti-China foreign policy, no matter what security undertakings it employs, for instance THAAD, to protect its national security ahead of a North Korean nuclear environment.
Moon’s visit to China therefore has offered a temporary new context to improve Sino-South Korean relations, which was suffering from a “trust deficit.” The 25th anniversary of the Sino-South Korean normalization of diplomatic relations in 2017 also seemed to have encouraged renewal of bilateral engagements.
However, the same cannot be said about Beijing’s new foreign policy under Xi, as it remains unclear how China will approach South Korea as a partner in the near future. Beijing’s expectations will be demanding, as witnessed when Xi reportedly told Moon to “appropriately handle” the THAAD issue.
Besides, Beijing would like to ensure that Seoul increasingly supports and partakes in Belt and Road projects. Moon would in return expect that China puts a check on North Korea’s nuclear activity and reduces the prospects of a war in the region. However, these are high expectations to meet on both ends. The onus of the Sino-South Korean relationship will eventually depend on how both countries address the “trust deficit” that continues to exist while not allowing Northeast Asian security to become more complicated.
By Jagannath Panda
Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and head of the East Asia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. -- Ed.