Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, plans to make a visit to South Korea next week. As one of the highest-ranking foreign affairs officials of China, he is expected to discuss issues regarding cooperation between South Korea and China such as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul within this year with Suh Hoon, national security advisor at the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. Their discussion will likely deal with how to resume the dialogue channels between the two Koreas and between Washington and Pyongyang.
Next week’s visit by China’s top diplomat to Seoul can have significant influence on the U.S.-South Korea relationship when tensions between Washington and Beijing are deepening over time with the U.S. presidential election scheduled on Nov. 3. If President Xi visits South Korea this year, which will be discussed during Yang’s trip, on one hand, it can increase chances that South Korea and China may end their discord concerning the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) issue. On the other hand, the U.S. government may get displeased with such a diplomatic shift, which, in turn, can cause tensions in the relationship between Seoul and Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed allies and friends harder to join its efforts to build a wall against China while strengthening the offense of all directions. For instance, Washington takes a carrot and stick approach to Seoul by being supportive of its participation in the G7 summit, while lessening solid fuel limits in the missile guidelines between Seoul and Washington by calling Seoul to join the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and exclude Huawei equipment from 5G networks.
Apparently, Beijing seems to get the jitters because it does not want Seoul to join the so-called anti-Chinese front. This explains its intentions behind President Xi’s call to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in May and China’s high-ranking diplomat’s upcoming visit to South Korea. The Chinese government has shown its strong will to make Xi’s visit to Seoul occur this year but there has not yet been any definite move to lift its ban on Korean pop culture and entertainment. Such a strategic scheme may be interpreted as an effort to make Seoul fret in their relationship. However, with it, China does not live up to its status as one of the world’s leaders.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing will peak during the U.S. presidential campaign. Regardless of who wins the election, Washington is likely to stay at odds with Beijing. Being sandwiched between larger countries, a smaller country only feels uncomfortable and exhausted. However, South Korea, as a middle-range powerhouse, should show diplomatic wisdom and nimbleness based on clear rules and principles before undergoing pressure to choose whom to side with – an ally or a neighboring nation. For example, the lifting of China's ban on the Korean Wave should be discussed without further delay. When Yang visits Seoul, the South Korean government should make sure that the issue is resolved and serves as momentum to bring about change in North Korea's attitude.