Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to South Korea on Thursday, part of a courtship aimed at strengthening his hand in dealing with North Korea and Japan.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye greeted Xi upon his arrival in Seoul, the fifth time the two have met since they both assumed power last year. During the two-day visit, Xi, Park and other South Korean officials are expected to discuss a possible trade agreement and mutual concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Chinese news outlets and officials have been hyping the meeting for days, partly because it marks the first time in two decades of normalized relations between Beijing and Seoul that a Chinese leader has visited South Korea before he’s visited the north.
The visit “will certainly become the most important milestone in the history of exchanges between the two countries,” China’s ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, told the Korea Joongang Daily in an interview last week. He added that “the relationship between South Korea and China couldn’t be any better.”
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China is regularly accused of clumsy foreign-policy forays, but Xi’s South Korea’s visit serves China’s interests by sending a terse message to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. While China remains North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner, Beijing opposes its nuclear weapons program and was stunned by Kim’s bloody power play last year, when he had executed his uncle and top adviser, Jang Song Thaek, who was well regarded by Chinese leaders.
In courting South Korea, China also hopes to build a regional counterweight to a historic enemy, Japan. Both countries were victims of Japanese atrocities during and before World War II, and both have denounced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for what they see as his attempts to remilitarize Japan.
On Tuesday, Abe announced that Japan would reinterpret its postwar pacifist constitution to allow it to play a larger military role in the region, including defending allies that are attacked. Beijing and Seoul criticized the move, with the South Korean Foreign Ministry issuing a statement that urged Japan to adhere to the spirit of its 67-year-old constitution.
Japan added to the intrigue Thursday by announcing a small diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea. Abe announced that Japan would lift some sanctions on North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang’s pledge to investigate what had happened to several Japanese citizens whom North Korea abducted in the 1970s and ’80s.
During that period, North Korea kidnapped dozens of Japanese citizens for use in a state-sponsored program to train North Koreans for overseas espionage, and Japan has long called for a full accounting. The lifted sanctions would allow North Korean ships to dock at Japanese ports and would end some travel restrictions between the countries, although Japan would continue to observe United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
While North Korea has confirmed the arrangement, it hasn’t refrained from actions that Japan, South Korea and other countries view as belligerent. Since last week, North Korea has been firing short-range missiles and rockets from its east coast, despite a United Nation ban on such tests.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions will likely be at the top of the agenda of the talks between Xi and Park. South Korea wants China to put more pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and resume so-called “six party talks” aimed at preventing a resumption of war on the Korean peninsula. Already big trading partners, China and South Korea are mulling a free trade agreement that would deepen economic ties between them.
According to South Korean media, Xi arrived Thursday with 200 Chinese business leaders and a delegation of 80 government officials, including his chief adviser, Wang Huning; Li Zhanshu, the head of the General Office of the Communist Party of China; Yang Jiechi, state councilor and former foreign minister; and Wang Yi, the foreign minister.
While Xi has pursued a more muscular foreign policy in Asia than his predecessors, with a goal of limiting U.S. influence, he offered an olive branch to Washington at an event Wednesday in Beijing. Speaking to a group of U.S. business leaders who included former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Xi said the two countries should “plant more flowers, no thorns, clear the interference and avoid suspicion and confrontation.”