The top legislator of China is scheduled to meet South Korean leaders, including newly elected President Yoon Suk Yeol, in Seoul on Friday. Yoon’s efforts to cement an alliance with Washington have raised concerns that this may hinder Seoul’s relations with Beijing. He is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit South Korea since his predecessor visited here in 2015. Li Zhanshu is the third in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy and one of Xi Jinping’s closest confidants.
China’s top legislator is set to meet with South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol on Friday amid concerns that Yoon’s push for a military alliance with Washington could undermine Beijing’s relations. Li Zhanshu has been one of China’s most senior officials to visit South Korea. pic.twitter.com/9sNxxDM90e
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As part of Beijing’s efforts to strengthen relations with neighboring countries, Li’s trip is seen as a precursor to the Communist Party congress that is expected to award Xi a third five-year term. Li’s visit is also essential for Yoon’s government since it wants to assure Beijing that its efforts to strengthen the United States alliance and participate in US-led regional initiatives will not adversely affect China.
China’s National People’s Congress standing committee chairman Li leads sixty-six members of the Chinese delegation to South Korea, including three cabinet-level officials. On the afternoon of Friday, he is scheduled to meet Yoon after holding separate discussions with National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin Pyo and other parliamentary leaders of South Korea on how to enhance the level of collaboration between the two countries’ legislatures.
XI Meeting with Putin
China has supported Russia in its war on Ukraine despite claims of neutrality, as Li expressed during a visit to Russia earlier this month. A regional gathering in Uzbekistan was held on Thursday, during which Xi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the meeting, the Russian President thanked Xi for his “balanced” approach to the Ukrainian crisis and denounced Washington’s “ugly” policies.
The meeting between Li and Yoon attracted lots of attention since Yoon had skipped a face-to-face meeting with Nancy Pelosi last month after her trip to Taiwan. Yoon, while on vacation, spoke with Pelosi over the phone, but he faced domestic criticism for deliberately avoiding her to avoid provocations with the Chinese government. During Pelosi’s Asian trip, including Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, Yoon was the only head of state who did not meet the speaker face-to-face.
During Li’s visit, Kim Heung-kyu, director of the U.S.-China Policy Institute at Ajou University in South Korea, noted that Li’s visit differed from Pelosi’s because she had been on a contentious tour to Taiwan. However, he stated that Beijing would likely see it as a symbolic gesture that Li met a South Korean president whom Pelosi did not meet.
During Li’s visit, key topics are expected to be discussed, among others, Seoul’s plans to enhance the stability of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, which China views as a security threat, the role China can play in curbing North Korean nuclear threats, as well as how to ensure stable supply chains. Prof. Kim Han-Kwon at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy said the two countries would likely reaffirm their respective positions on these topics. Li is expected to convey the Chinese view of them clearly and concisely.
China Suspended Group Tours to South Korea
Chinese officials are concerned that Yoon’s move toward Washington could have the same economic repercussions as South Korea’s 2017 placement of the THAAD system on its soil. The Chinese government has suspended tours to South Korea and conducted an unofficial boycott of the country’s products as it claims its radar system can spy on its territory. However, China is likely more careful this time because launching such economic retaliatory measures won’t achieve China’s goals, will push South Korea nearer to the United States, and could worsen anti-Chinese sentiments.
In the THAAD dispute, China affected public opinion in South Korea and caused economic losses to the country. “However, they ultimately failed to stop the THAAD system from being deployed, and anti-China sentiments began to grow in South Korea. There was also a public reevaluation of Korean-US military cooperation and cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the United States.”
Protests in southern South Korea have undermined the regular operation of the THAAD base, preventing materials and equipment from entering. Earlier this week, China claimed that South Korea had agreed to limit the operation of the base, a claim denied by Yoon’s government. In addition to semiconductors, automobiles, and smartphones, South Korea is one of the world’s largest suppliers of electronic products. As a result, experts say it would make a good partner for the United States and China.
“South Korea has a significant strategic role for both the United States and China,” explained Kim, the institute’s director. Likely, China will further emphasize a message of amity and cooperation rather than pressure, conflict, or confrontation with South Korea unless the Yoon Suk Yeol government openly pursues an anti-China policy.