S. Korea-China Ties Unlikely to Improve After Biden-Xi Summit, Experts Say

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By Ketrin Agustine

The effort to ease tensions in the Asia-Pacific region begun at last week’s U.S.-China summit is expected to continue at coming talks among three Northeast Asian powers, but experts say South Korea’s close alignment with Washington leaves little room for major improvement.

Trilateral talks among the foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan are expected to take place as early as this weekend in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. They come little more than a week after Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met on November 15 near San Francisco, the site of an APEC summit.

Biden said afterward that the meeting was aimed at managing the competition between the world’s two leading powers and preventing it from veering into conflict. The meeting became possible through multiple efforts by Washington to repair a relationship that had soured after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted drifting across the U.S. in late January and February.

Evans Revere, who served as the acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs during the George W. Bush administration, told VOA via email, “The main accomplishment of the presidents’ meeting was that the two were able to meet at all.”

He continued, “The gaps between Washington and Beijing are wide and strategic — competition between the two is likely to remain the key characteristic of bilateral ties for a long time to come.”

He said, “The Biden-Xi meeting will hopefully have the effect, at least in the near term, of reducing regional tensions,” and the upcoming trilateral talks should provide “an indication” of whether Beijing is willing to improve ties with Seoul.

S. Korea-China Ties Unlikely to Improve After Biden-Xi Summit, Experts Say


Chinese President Xi Jinping talks with U.S. President Joe Biden after meeting in Woodside, California, on Nov. 15, 2023.

Beijing opposes Seoul’s policies in the Indo-Pacific, which closely align with U.S. efforts to defend freedom of navigation in the region, defend Taiwan and push back against Chinese territorial expansion in the South China Sea.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said China should play a responsible role in the Indo-Pacific, in an interview with the Telegraph, a British newspaper, published Monday.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press briefing on the same day that Yoon should remain silent on issues pertaining to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

South Korea “is not a party to the South China Sea issue, and there’s no point in getting involved,” said the spokeswoman. “We don’t need to be told what to do or not to do. The Taiwan question is entirely China’s internal affairs.”

Mao went on to blame the United States for aggressive behavior by North Korea, which this week claimed to have successfully launched a military reconnaissance satellite in violation of U.N. sanctions.

She said the United States “holds the key to resolving” the issue, claiming the “frequent” visits of U.S. strategic bombers and aircraft carrier battle groups to South Korea threaten the North.

Yoon and Biden have been calling on China to play a constructive role with North Korea throughout the year.

China long ago stopped condemning Pyongyang’s unlawful behavior and calling for an end to its nuclear program. Revere said that is because “North Korea is an important tactical and strategic partner and ally for the PRC in the latter’s effort to challenge the U.S.-led liberal international order and particularly the U.S.-led alliance system in the Indo-Pacific region.”

He continued: “Washington is also determined to assist its allies and partners, including Japan, the ROK, Taiwan and Australia, build up their military capabilities in the face of China’s rapidly growing military, the PRC’s aggressive military and diplomatic posture in the Indo-Pacific region.”

A day before the Biden-Xi meeting, the Pentagon announced the preliminary approval of the sale of SM-6 missiles to South Korea, saying the sale would support U.S. national security objectives and improve Seoul’s security in the Indo-Pacific.

On the day of the meeting, the Pentagon announced another proposed sale of AIM-9X sidewinder missiles to Seoul for the same reasons.

Two days after the Washington-Beijing summit, the Pentagon announced a proposed sale of 400 Tomahawk missiles to Japan for the same purpose.

Robert Rapson, who served as charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 2018 to 2021, told VOA via email, “Beijing certainly has the potential to influence North Korea on key strategic issues.”

He continued, “However, Beijing has chosen not to exercise this power for variety of reasons,” which include viewing Pyongyang and its activities “as useful for its posturing and policies toward the U.S., ROK and Japan.”

Nevertheless, Dennis Wilder, who served as senior director for East Asia affairs at the White House’s National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, told VOA via email that Washington should never stop trying to get China to use its leverage with North Korea.

He said Beijing should do this “not as a favor to us but because China does not want a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia any more than we do.”

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