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[Editorial] Proper position

Seoul has to be cautious not to overrate Xi’s possible visit amid US-China rift

In a briefing about Saturday’s talks between top South Korean and Chinese officials, Cheong Wa Dae said the two sides agreed to finalize Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “early visit” to South Korea once the novel coronavirus situation here stabilizes.

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, confirmed that South Korea is at the top of the list of countries Xi will travel to, said presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok.

Yang held a four-hour meeting with Suh Hoon, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in, in South Korea’s southern port city of Busan. They continued their discussions over lunch for nearly two hours.

Yang’s response to a reporter’s question after the meeting represented a departure from the presidential spokesman’s upbeat tone on the issue of Xi’s visit.

He avoided giving a direct answer to the question of whether Xi would visit here, just saying, through an interpreter, he’d had a “quite good dialogue” with Suh during their first meeting since Suh assumed his post in early July.

Xi was expected to make a trip here in the first half of this year to reciprocate Moon’s 2017 visit to China, but it has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yang’s choice of Busan instead of Seoul for his second visit to South Korea in more than two years sparked speculation about the motives behind that choice -- which, critics here noted, was not in keeping with diplomatic courtesy.

They said Yang, who is in charge of China’s diplomatic affairs, may have avoided visiting the capital to circumvent an obligation to pay a courtesy call to President Moon and/or out of concern over the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases around the Greater Seoul area. If he had met Moon, he might have felt pressed to make a clear reply to the South Korean leader’s wish for a reciprocal visit from his Chinese counterpart.

Moon and his aides have been eager to realize Xi’s visit within the year, hoping it would give a significant boost to their push for reconciliation with North Korea and fully restore bilateral economic cooperation damaged by China’s retaliation against South Korea’s 2016 decision to allow the US to deploy an advanced missile defense system on its soil.

China seems to be dangling the possibility of Xi’s trip to draw South Korea into its fold or push it to remain at least neutral in its intensifying rivalry with the US. It apparently views South Korea as the weakest link in the network of allies and partners that the US is trying to build to keep China’s rising influence and increasing assertiveness in check.

During his meeting with Suh, Yang explained China’s position on the recent Beijing-Washington rift, according to the Cheong Wa Dae spokesman. Such an explanation could be seen as a message that Seoul should not go against Beijing’s stance.

Suh responded by emphasizing the significance of their win-win and friendly cooperation for prosperity and peace in Northeast Asia and other parts of the world.

South Korea will find it increasingly hard and eventually impossible to walk a fine line between the US, its traditional ally, and China, its largest trading partner, as the conflict between the world’s two superpowers is expected to intensify in the coming years or decades.

It needs to be remembered that China’s economic might and leverage with North Korea are important, but not to the extent that they can be allowed to undermine the crucial alliance with the US.

The Moon administration should also be cautious not to overrate Xi’s possible visit in terms of Seoul’s position between the US and China.

China might be limited in imposing any economic penalties on South Korea amid the coronavirus-induced global economic retreat. The move could also result in strengthening, not cutting off, what it sees as the weakest link in the web of alliances with Washington.

There now seems to be little room for Beijing to prod Pyongyang to respond to the Moon administration’s efforts for inter-Korean reconciliation, as the recalcitrant regime is poised to decide on its future course of action depending on the result of the US presidential election in November.

US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said in his nomination acceptance speech last week that his election would mean that the US would no longer cozy up to dictators, reiterating his commitment to strengthening alliances.

It would serve South Korea’s national interests best to nurture its ties with China based on a solid alliance with the US and established international standards.
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