Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit here last week was viewed as aimed at strengthening ties between South Korea and China ahead of the launch of a new US administration in January.
His trip to Seoul, the first since December 2019, came as US President-elect Joe Biden has made clear his intent to rebuild a network of America’s alliances to reassert its global leadership and keep China’s growing assertiveness in check.
The Chinese top diplomat might have been pleased by the eagerness of a whole range of South Korean leaders to meet with him. Or he might have taken it for granted, given South Korea’s care not to anger its largest economic partner and desire to secure Beijing’s support for its push for inter-Korean reconciliation at the risk of weakening its traditional alliance with the US.
During his three-day stay here, which followed a trip to Japan, Wang met President Moon Jae-in, National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug and top ruling party officials as well as his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha.
He gave an unambiguous signal that South Korea should stand by China or at least remain neutral between the world’s two mightiest countries when asked by a reporter whether his latest trip here might be put in the context of an escalating Sino-US rivalry.
“The US is not the only country in this world,” Wang said, adding there are some 190 independent countries, including China and South Korea.
He was lavish in his rhetoric to emphasize the importance of strengthened ties between South Korea and China but failed to commit to substantial measures to carry forward bilateral cooperation.
In his meeting with Kang, Wang touted the “robustness” and “vitality” of China’s relations with South Korea, stressing his trip here, which he said came at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has yet to end, illustrates how much Beijing values the bilateral partnership.
But he gave no clear answer to Seoul’s wish list.
Wang said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul would take place “as soon as conditions are ripe” in a repeat of Beijing’s position that Xi can make the planned trip after the COVID-19 pandemic is contained. The Moon administration has wanted the Chinese leader to visit here within this year.
He hoped for a continuous communication when asked to lift China’s continued restrictions on Korean cultural content that were imposed in an apparent reprisal for Seoul’s 2016 decision to allow the US to deploy an advanced missile defense system here in response to growing military threats from North Korea.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry drew attention to a “10-point” agreement reached at the meeting between Wang and Kang. But the accord contains no substantial measures to move forward bilateral partnership, just calling for superstitious steps like promoting anti-coronavirus cooperation and establishing a committee for the long-term development of mutual relations.
The US seemed sensitive to Wang’s visit here. In a tweet that coincided with the trip, the US state Department’s deputy spokesperson, Cale Brown, said that China’s Communist Party propaganda “can’t bury the truth” and accused its leaders of having “misled their own people about the Korean War to avoid accountability.” Brown was referring to Beijing’s characterization of the 1950-53 conflict as the “war to resist US aggression and assist the Korean people,” not as a fight triggered by North Korea’s invasion with the backing of China and the Soviet Union.
The Moon government will find it harder to maintain an equal distance between the two superpowers, as the Biden administration is expected to take a multilateral approach based on values shared with its democratic allies in encircling China.
Moon Chung-in, a foreign policy and security adviser to President Moon, made the right point when he said during a virtual seminar last week that it would be too risky for Seoul to continue to walk a tightrope between the US and China as tensions between them are set to further escalate.
But he took an unrealistic tone when he suggested South Korea should work together with Australia, Canada and Japan to form regional economic or security frameworks so as to create a new order free from the burden of choosing sides between the superpowers.
The middle powers cited by him are expected to be pillars of the norms-based network of alliances envisioned by the Biden team. Seoul needs to prepare to be in step with the incoming US administration to protect its core interests.