BEIJING -- The leaders of China and South Korea affirmed a shared goal of a peaceful end to the standoff with North Korea, but despite the effort at solidarity, their summit here Thursday reinforced the view of how far bilateral relations still have to improve.
Seoul had reportedly insisted that President Moon Jae-in's visit to China come before a trilateral summit planned for next year in Japan. This likely was intended in part to encourage Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit South Korea in February during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, though Xi made no promises.
Moon hopes that the games will serve as a turning point for peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. But unable to persuade North Korea to participate, he is having to rely on China's influence to bring its isolated ally around.
Moon and Xi agreed Thursday on four principles for ensuring stability on the Korean Peninsula, according to South Korea's Blue House: rejecting war, resolving problems through dialogue, continuing to pursue denuclearization, and improving North-South relations. No mention was made of pressure or sanctions on the North -- in direct contrast to Moon's conversations with U.S. President Donald Trump, during which they agreed to exert "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang.
Not exactly standing side by side
While China gave Moon a full state welcome for his first visit as president to the country, the two leaders conducted no joint news conference and issued no joint statements. Instead, the countries separately announced the outcome of the summit, much to South Korea's chagrin.
"We weren't in a situation where we could issue a joint statement," a Blue House source said.
South Korea's decision to deploy the U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield continues to poison its relations with China. As recently as October, South Korea and China agreed to mend fences, with Seoul claiming that the matter had been put aside as a major point of contention between the Asian countries. Beijing did not share this view, and Xi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi continued to apply pressure. China's military fears that the missile defense system's powerful radar will penetrate deep into its own territory.
Xi continued urging Moon to address China's concerns Thursday, saying bilateral relations had suffered over the THAAD deployment and that both countries must take care to avoid repeating such a breakdown.
Beijing moved to warm ties with Seoul only after South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said her country would not deploy additional THAAD batteries, join the U.S. missile defense network or enter into a trilateral military alliance with Japan and the U.S.
But Kang's comments incurred U.S. displeasure over Seoul's apparent willingness to relinquish sovereignty on these matters. South Korea finds itself caught between its superpower ally and East Asia's rising power. In an interview on state-run China Central Television prior to his visit, Moon was pressed to elaborate on Kang's so-called three no's to "the hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers." The president simply said that she was stating South Korea's existing position.
Meanwhile, though China has taken some steps to address Seoul's concern over boycotts and other ill will shown to South Korean companies over the THAAD issue, such retaliation continues. Bilateral relations look far from normal.