BEIJING – The leaders of South Korea and China said Monday that they look forward to improved ties following a protracted disagreement over the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system that Beijing considers a threat.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that while the sides may have felt “disappointed toward each other for a while," their shared culture and history prevented them from becoming completely estranged.
“It is hoped that South Korea's dream becomes helpful for China as China's dream becomes an opportunity for South Korea," Moon said in opening remarks before reporters were ushered from the room.
In his opening comments at the meeting at the Great Hall of the People in the center of Beijing, Xi described China and South Korea as “countries of substance and influence in Asia and throughout the world.”
“China and (South Korea) should deepen and develop their strategic cooperative partnership, accommodate each other's core interests and major concerns, and lift bilateral ties to a higher level," Xi said.
Ties between the Northeast Asian neighbors nosedived in 2017 after Seoul accepted the placement of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system in southern South Korea. Beijing insists its real purpose is to use its powerful radars to peer deep into its territory, rather than to warn of North Korean missile launches and shoot them down.
A furious China launched an unofficial boycott of everything from Chinese tour group visits to South Korea to South Korean television shows, boy bands and other cultural products. Major South Korean retailer Lotte, which provided a golf course where the missile system was deployed, was singled out for especially harsh treatment and its China business operations were essentially destroyed. Even sales of ubiquitous South Korean auto brands such as Hyundai and Kia plunged for months.
Ultimately, Beijing was unable to force South Korea to remove the system and its fury appears to have subsided somewhat amid its trade war with the U.S. and tensions elsewhere in Asia. South Korea now hopes to have Xi visit next year and is also eager to have Beijing use its influence with North Korea to give a jolt to deadlocked denuclearization talks.
While South Korea appreciates the part China has played in that effort, the “current recent situations in which the talks between the United States and North Korea are stalled and tensions on the Korean Peninsula have become heightened are certainly not favorable, not only for South Korea and China but also for North Korea," Moon said in his opening comments.
“I hope that we continue to closely cooperate so that the opportunities we have gained with difficulty can come to fruition," he said.
North Korea has set a year-end deadline for the U.S. to make concessions in the nuclear talks, without apparently making any offers of its own. The U.S. says it won't accept that demand and has called on North Korea to return to negotiations. While China is North Korea's most important diplomatic ally and chief source of investment and economic assistance, its ability to force Kim Jong Un's regime to alter policy is believed to be limited.
Along with meeting Xi, Moon is to take part Tuesday in a trilateral summit in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Xi met with Abe on Monday afternoon in Beijing, saying the two are “jointly opening a new future for relations between the two countries."
“At present Sino-Japan relations are facing an important development opportunity," Xi said.
Ties between the longtime rivals have improved remarkably in recent years, despite lingering resentments over Japan's invasion and occupation of much of China last century and its continuing control of East China Sea islands claimed by Beijing.
Japan is also wary about China's rapid military expansion, and there has been a public uproar over the detention of more than a dozen Japanese citizens on spying allegations in China. Chinese naval and coast guard ships also routinely violate Japanese-claimed waters around the disputed islands.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Masato Otaka characterized the meeting as an additional step in improving relations, to be further cemented by a planned visit by Xi to Japan in the spring.
However, Otaka said Abe did not shy away from sensitive areas, including Japanese concerns over China's handling of matters in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, where months of anti-government protests have turned violent; the northwestern territory of Xinjiang, where China has built a vast network of political reeducation camps in which it has locked up more than a million members of Muslim minority groups; and the cases of detained Japanese, about which Abe asked Xi to take “swift action" to resolve.
Abe also emphasized the importance of maritime security, proposing stronger communication between the navies and air forces of the two countries and cooperation in search and rescue to reduce the chances of confrontation in the East China Sea, Otaka said.
“Mr. Abe stressed that without the stability of the East China Sea, true improvement of (the) Japan-China relationship cannot really happen," Otaka said.