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[News Analysis] Is momentum building to ease South Korea-China strain?

At 1st meeting in 7 years, top envoys underscore cooperation, but acknowledge challenges

May 14, 2024 - 15:40 By Ji Da-gyum
South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul (left) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Monday. The Korea-China foreign ministerial meeting takes place in Beijing for the first time since November 2017. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

A four-hour meeting Monday between the top diplomats of South Korea and China has ignited new momentum in kickstarting strained high-level dialogue, essential for laying the groundwork to create a conducive environment for the resumption of long-stalled cooperation and exchanges at all levels.

Experts noted that the development is especially significant as it sets the stage for a mood of cooperation and dialogue, paving the way for the upcoming long-awaited trilateral summit with Japan, the first since 2019, in late May in Seoul.

However, experts simultaneously cautioned that the meeting also exposed inherent differences between Seoul and Beijing on North Korea as well as regional and global issues against the backdrop of US-China strategic competition, which will serve as a key hurdle in sustaining the newfound momentum.

Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and his counterpart Wang Yi met for the first time in Beijing at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, marking the first meeting of its kind in the Chinese capital city since November 2017.

"I consider it a significant achievement that the current atmosphere is moving towards cooperation, despite past differences in perspectives on the South Korea-China relationship," Pyo Na-ri, a professor in the Department of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, told The Korea Herald.

In their opening remarks, Cho and Wang underscored the importance of cooperation while candidly acknowledging the challenges confronting both countries.

Wang emphasized, "There are no fundamental conflicts of interest between China and Korea. Both should strive for a state of harmony with differences," using the concept of "heerbutong," according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday.

The original Chinese heerbutong denotes being friendly and cooperative while maintaining one's principles.

Wang also said, "China-Korea relations have been facing difficulties and challenges, which is not in the common interests of both sides nor is it what China wants to see."

South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul engages in discussions with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi during their meeting on Monday. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Cho also shared the sentiment during the meeting, saying "It's crucial to sustain momentum for cooperation while managing disagreements carefully to prevent them from escalating into conflicts even in the face of difficulties."

Choo Jae-woo, a professor in the Department of Chinese Studies at Kyung Hee University, underscored that South Korea and China "hit the ground running in resuming communication."

"So our priority now should be to ensure that we sustain this momentum and keep the dialogue going at a high level," Choo told The Korea Herald.

Kang Jun-young, a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, remarked that the ongoing high-level communication signals a promising step towards thawing the strained dialogue channels between South Korea and China.

"There is also certainly significance now in fundamentally setting a tone towards the upcoming summit among South Korea, Japan and China at the end of this month, especially in terms of building a positive atmosphere," Kang told The Korea Herald.

Experts underscored that a key outcome of Cho's visit to Beijing is to secure China's commitment to proceed with the trilateral summit in Seoul, as the date for the meeting has not yet been announced by the three countries.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry confirmed Tuesday that three countries have been in the final stages of discussions to convene their leaders' meeting on May 26 and 27 in Seoul.

Following the meeting between Cho and Wang, South Korea's Foreign Ministry stated, "the two ministers agreed to continue their cooperation for the success of the 9th Korea-Japan-China Summit to be held soon in Korea," in a press statement issued thereafter.

South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul (right) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi stroll at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing following bilateral talks on Monday. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Pyo elucidated that China's subsequent actions following the ministerial meeting will be pivotal in gauging its commitment to bolster cooperation with South Korea.

"China's actual willingness for cooperation will indeed be something to assess not only from the ongoing foreign ministerial meetings but also from subsequent events," Pyo said.

Pyo pointed out that whether Wang will attend the trilateral summit among Korea, China, and Japan in Seoul would serve as a significant indicator of China's willingness to cooperate further, noting that it's uncommon for foreign ministers to accompany leaders to summit meetings.

The Foreign Ministry in Seoul said Cho invited Wang to visit South Korea, emphasizing the "importance of strengthening strategic exchanges and communication at various levels including high levels."

Experts. however, cautioned against overestimating the significance of the foreign ministerial meeting, noting that both sides merely reaffirmed their respective positions on North Korean, regional and global issues.

It is evident from the statements issued by each country's foreign ministry that there were significant differences of opinion on sensitive matters such as Taiwan and North Korea's nuclear program.

Minister Cho raised concerns about North Korean provocations and urged China to give special attention and cooperation to prevent the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors, yet notably, these topics were absent from China's statement.

Conversely, Wang highlighted the Taiwan issue, which was conspicuously missing from the South Korean statement, indicating a clear disparity in their stances.

Choo pointed out that the "nature of high-level meetings has indeed changed significantly since the beginning of the era of strategic competition between the US and China."

"Now, the emphasis is on communication aimed at situation management. As a result, the current communication is more unilateral, focused on confirming each other's positions," Choo told The Korea Herald.

"This is being done to prevent misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or misconceptions, even if both sides do not fully understand each other's perspectives. So, these communication channels are currently in operation to prevent such situations."

The press statement from the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on the outcome also indicated that the ministerial meeting did not result in concrete agreements on issues such as North Korea.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is seen during her meeting with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, July 8, 2023. (Pool photo via Reuters)

Kang elucidated that South Korea and China confront inherent challenges arising from fundamental disparities regarding the US-China strategic competition, and North Korean issues, alongside broader regional and global concerns such as the South Korea-US alliance and trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan.

Seoul perceives them as pivotal in mitigating the escalating threats posed by North Korea, a stance that contrasts with China's firm opposition to such initiatives.

Kang explained that while high-level dialogue could rejuvenate bilateral exchanges and cooperation at certain levels, its impact on fundamentally altering the nature of bilateral ties would be limited.

"Minister Cho acknowledges the challenges ahead but emphasizes the importance of managing relations and fostering communication. If discussions at higher levels persist, we may see progress, especially in terms of opening up economic or regional government-level exchanges compared to the past," Kang said.

"However, it's challenging to assert that such progress will completely reset the dynamics of the South Korea-China relationship."

Kang stressed the salience of addressing inherent differences and forging a new path for the two countries to sustain the momentum, describing it as "seeking a new baseline."

"What they can do now is to recalibrate and lower their expectations for each other and establish a new baseline, and then there will be significant potential for a breakthrough in communication and the dawn of a new era in South Korea-China relations," Kang said.

"However, it appears they are not quite there yet."