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04.12.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Chinese Foreign Minister’s Visit to South Korea: All Talk and No Substance?


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a visit to Seoul from November 25 to November 27, 2020. The previous visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Seoul took place in December 2019. The official mass media of the Republic of Korea described the visit as “an unprecedented breakthrough in relations between the two countries,” however, if you sift through the pleasantries, take a look at the official results, you get a somewhat different picture.

Wang Yi arrived in Korea on the evening of November 25 after completing a two-day visit to Japan.

On the morning of November 26, during negotiations and a joint lunch with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, Kang Kyung Hwa, a whole package of problems was discussed. First, these are issues related to the organization of the visit to Seoul by the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping and the trilateral South Korean-Sino-Japanese summit to be held in Seoul. Secondly, they touched upon cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and other practical ways to strengthen bilateral ties. Thirdly, they touched upon the issues of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, as well as other regional and global problems of so-dubbed “mutual interest.”

At the beginning of the talks, the head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry expressed the hope that the two countries would actively cooperate with the world community in the fight against COVID-19, for achieving economic recovery, and maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Wang noted that South Korea and China are working together to “contribute to regional peace and stability, promote regional economic integration and complement global governance,” but did not elaborate further. These remarks were made amid speculation that Beijing will try to win Seoul over to its side in the former’s confrontation with the United States.  Moreover, when asked by reporters about how analysts view his trip in the context of Sino-US rivalry, Wang said: “The US is not the only country in the world. The world has a total of 190 sovereign nations, each of which is independent. China and South Korea are both such countries”.

The ministers “agreed in principle to set up a committee,” which will be tasked with developing a roadmap for the future development of relations between Seoul and Beijing on the eve of the 30th anniversary of bilateral ties.

As for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul, it will become possible as soon as the situation with COVID-19 stabilizes, “as conditions develop.”

The ministers noted that the stabilization of the situation on the Korean Peninsula will create conditions for the advancement of the peace process, including the denuclearization of North Korea.   According to the Korean media, they “shared the opinion that Pyongyang is watching the transition of the leadership in the United States with a wait and see attitude against the backdrop of COVID-19, and agreed on the need for stable management of the current situation on the peninsula, apparently in order to prevent North Korean provocation.”

Finally, the parties agreed to work together to prepare for a wider cultural exchange in 2021-2022 and accelerate efforts to adopt a joint plan for economic cooperation for the period 2021-25.

At the same time, Kang Kyung Hwa called on China to actively cooperate against the background of China’s continuing restrictions on Korean cultural content, which were introduced against the backdrop of the scandal surrounding the installation of an American anti-missile system in South Korea. Wang said nothing on the matter, but expressed strong support for Seoul’s proposal for a collaborative initiative in Northeast Asia on communicable disease control and public health.

After lunch with the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, Wang went to the Blue House and paid a courtesy visit to President Moon Jae-in, passing him a “special verbal message” from President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping, who, according to Wang Yi, attaches particular importance to “personal friendship and mutual trust” with South Korean leader. In response, Moon Jae-in noted that Seoul “will not stop its efforts to bring a (formal) end to the war on the Korean Peninsula and achieve full denuclearization and permanent peace with the international community, including China”.

Wang later attended a banquet with Lee Hae Chang, the former head of the ruling Democratic Party, and several PD lawmakers. Those in attendance quoted him as saying that the agreement reached during the first US-North Korean summit in Singapore in 2018 should be preserved.

On November 27, Wang Yi met with the senior secretary of the president of the Republic of Korea for foreign affairs and national security, Moon Jong-in, and representatives of the leadership of the ruling Democratic Party Toburo.

Before leaving Seoul, the head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry met with the speaker of the National Assembly Park Pyong Suk, in a conversation with whom he noted that “the South and North (of Korea) are indeed the real masters of the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, the fate of the Korean Peninsula must be transferred to both the hands of the South and North” and added: “As an important neighbor, China will continue to play a constructive role”.

The speaker appealed to China for support in continuing efforts to denuclearize North Korea, asked China to consider forming a cooperation body in Northeast Asia to tackle climate change, and expressed his desire for bilateral strategic negotiations to be systematized and brought to the level of internationally recognized high standards.

What is here to say? Wang’s visit to Korea came just over three months after Yang Jiechi, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Committee, visited Busan in August 2020. Consecutive visits by key Chinese diplomatic politicians to one country are considered extremely rare.

Experts say this is a testament to Korea’s growing strategic importance from Beijing’s perspective as the US and China compete. Some supplement this by the fact that, compared to his visit to Japan, Wang communicated with a large number of counterparts. As Zhao Ma, an adjunct professor of modern Chinese history at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Korea Times, “The mission of the Chinese foreign minister to visit Seoul and Tokyo is to stabilize and strengthen China’s ties with these two neighbors in the face of a pandemic, even after Biden’s victory.” In his opinion, “Beijing has things to work on and much to expect from Seoul”.

However, despite the big words, the visit brought rather modest results:

  • There is no joint statement to serve as a special declaration following the results, and the essence of the “special verbal message” in fact could have been very different, and the fact that its content was not leaked to the media suggests certain ideas.
  • There is no de facto causal reason for the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. “As conditions develop” is pretty vague wording, and the fact that Wang moved towards it from “how the pandemic will progress” also speaks volumes.
  • On the DPRK issue, the parties exchanged declarative statements, but Beijing did not say anything new – it promised and promises to play a constructive role in organizing the peace process and, in general, is really making efforts.
  • The request to lift informal sanctions against the cultural content of the Republic of Korea was essentially ignored, and on other issues the parties “agreed to negotiate”, “accelerate efforts” and develop roadmaps.

Wang Yi clearly tried to emphasize that the ROK, like the DPRK, is an independent country and the United States is not the only pebble on the beach, but how well he was heard remains to be seen. As this author has repeatedly noted, in the hypothetical confrontation between Beijing and Washington, American grip on Seoul’s sensitive areas is much stronger.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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