Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Park Geun Hye said they won’t tolerate the development of nuclear arms on the Korean peninsula and called for a revival of disarmament talks with North Korea.
“Both sides agreed that members of the six-party talks should create conditions for reviving the talks by reaching a common understanding,” Park said yesterday at a joint press conference with Xi in Seoul. The talks involve the two Koreas, the U.S, Japan, Russia and China.
The summit yesterday followed a week of missile launches by the North, whose leader Kim Jong Un has defied U.S. and South Korean demands he roll back its nuclear programs in order to restart the six-party talks that have stalled since late 2008.
In a sign of further improvement in relations between China and South Korea, Xi and Park also agreed to set up direct won-yuan trading, conclude free trade talks between their countries by the end of this year and begin negotiations on sea boundaries by 2015.
“In the matter of choosing a strategic partner on the Korean peninsula, China has tipped the scales toward South Korea,” said Liu Ming, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
As one of North Korea’s allies and its biggest trading partner, China has the political and economic leverage to apply pressure on North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006. Xi said he supports the peaceful unification of the Koreas, while Park called for trust-building with the North before they can unify for to pursue economic prosperity.
The strengthening ties between Xi and Park and a mutual mistrust of Japan risk complicating the economic and strategic rebalancing to Asia by the U.S., a major ally of both Japan and South Korea. China has also sought to improve relations with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the north and newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the west, as it hedges against U.S. influence.
“China’s medium- to long-term objective is to bring the Korean peninsula firmly inside its sphere of influence, marginalizing both the U.S. and Japan as political, economic and security players,” Ronald Huisken, senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said in an e-mail.
Animosity over Japan’s occupation of China and South Korea continues to infuse relations almost 70 years after the end of World War II, and the two countries this week criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for moving to reinterpret the postwar pacifist constitution to allow Japanese troops to defend allies under attack. The decision was praised by the U.S., which drafted the constitution that barred such assistance until now.
A personal rapport between Xi and Park is solidifying ties between the countries that fought against each other during the 1950-53 Korean War. China has been South Korea’s biggest trading partner since 2004, overtaking the U.S. which maintains 28,500 troops in the South. Bilateral trade reached $266 billion last year, up 7.5 percent from 2012.
“Burgeoning economic dependence on China but continuing security dependence on the United States, that is ultimately not sustainable,” Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, said by phone. “That’s the real issue besides North Korea that will dominate South Korean foreign policy for the next 20 years.”
Xi’s visit made him the first Chinese leader to visit Seoul ahead of Pyongyang since China established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992.
After Xi, 61, became Communist Party chief in November 2012, the official China News Service said ties with South Korea were entering “a new, honeymoon period.” Xi, who has referred to Park as “an old friend,” sent Park a handwritten greeting for her 62nd birthday in February, the People’s Daily reported.
During Park’s visit to Beijing in June last year she gave a portion of her speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater. Earlier this year, China built a memorial to honor a Korean independence fighter in its northeastern city of Harbin. Lauded as a hero in South Korea, Ahn Joong Geun has been called a criminal by officials in Tokyo for killing Japan’s representative in Korea in 1909.
The U.S. has endorsed the tightening bonds between China and South Korea while viewing the rift between Park and Abe with concern.
The Xi-Park summit “is an extraordinary milestone, and it should be helpful in promoting needed cooperation on North Korea,” Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said June 18.
“In contrast to improvements with China, relations between Korea and Japan remain strained,” he said. “There is hard work ahead for both sides. This cannot be done by one party alone. And the hard work is made more difficult by politicization and by the erosion of trust.”