Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Beijing makes inroads in Seoul as alliances shuffle

For the first time, a Chinese president opts to visit Seoul before Pyongyang, on Xi’s first visit to the peninsula

The leaders of China and South Korea on Thursday reaffirmed their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program but neglected to say just how to go about disarming the rogue state, in a symbolic meeting that marked the first time a Chinese president had visited Seoul before stopping in Pyongyang, on his inaugural visit to the unsettled Korean peninsula.

In their fifth meeting since both took office last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye emerged from a three-hour session to issue a joint statement on “denuclearization” that carefully avoided singling out Beijing-backed North Korea, as per Chinese diplomatic custom. “The two sides reaffirmed the position that they firmly oppose the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula,” the statement read.

Park, in a separate statement delivered with Xi at her side, went a step further and framed the Chinese premier’s visit in the context of three short-range missile and rocket tests by the North over the past week — an apparent expression of Pyongyang’s wariness about Thursday’s meeting — implying that China had had enough.

But Xi's decision to stop in the South before the North, which Beijing has long supported, reflects China’s changing priorities as it increasingly flexes its military, economic and diplomatic muscles to block the United States in its “pivot east.”

China, as Pyongyang’s most important backer, is the lynchpin for any international effort to curb nuclear weaponry on the Korean peninsula. And among Beijing powerbrokers there's a growing notion that taming North Korea could be instrumental in prying South Korea away from its foremost ally, Washington. Without a volatile nuclear power across its northern border, the logic of Seoul’s security-minded partnership with the U.S. might diminish.

Washington, which already has 28,000 soldiers in South Korea, has sought to loop Seoul into an anti-ballistic missile defense system it has been expanding in East Asia, part of the Obama administration’s “pivot east.”

The denuclearization of North Korea is the “centerpiece of Park’s agenda” vis-a-vis China, says Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations — and the process will be slow-going. Despite Xi and Park's aligned priorities, there was no indication Thursday that they had made progress on what to do about the North’s nuclear program, which they both want to see scaled back.

And while Xi’s travel choice was widely seen as a snub, “it doesn’t represent a shift in China’s underlying strategic interest in North Korean stability,” Snyder said.

But China and South Korea, whose trade totals $230 billion annually, did pledge to hammer out a free-trade deal by year’s end. South Korea remains leery of Beijing’s ties with the North but is increasingly reliant on China as an export market.

The two have also recently bonded over a shared history, having both suffered under Japanese military aggression during the 1930s and '40s until World War II ended and Japan’s military was disbanded. Park has revived a campaign to demand compensation from Japan for transgressions against Korean comfort women during the war, while Beijing has made untimely comments on the 1937 Japanese massacre of tens of thousands of civilians in Nanjing.

On Thursday, the handwritten confessions of 45 Japanese war criminals convicted by Chinese military tribunals were posted online — 70 years after the fact — The New York Times reported.

China and South Korea saw Thursday’s visit primarily as a means of pressuring North Korea into submission, but “it also has the added ‘benefit’ of contrasting the increasingly close ties between Beijing and Seoul with the continued frosty relations both currently have with Tokyo,” wrote Ralph Cossa, in a reaction to Thursday’s meeting.

Cognizant of that perception, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced just hours before the summit that he would lift some sanctions his government had imposed on North Korea, a move Abe said was a reward for North Korea’s reluctant cooperation on an investigation into the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens there in the '70s and '80s.

Though the move will have minimal economic traction, Japan’s gesture spoke to its own wariness about Chinese overtures to South Korea and about China’s greater designs on a recalibration of the region’s geopolitical landscape to edge out Japan’s U.S. ally.

Japan’s legacy of military abuse has been under the global spotlight this week with news that the country’s cabinet would reinterpret Japan’s U.S.-drafted charter that has mandated a pacifist military force, in the wake of Japan’s World War II-era invasions of its neighbors. In a victory for Abe, a hawkish conservative, Japan will end its ban on “collective self-defense” and be able to aid a friendly country under attack.

China, in a row with Japan as well as a slew of other countries over the disputed South China Sea, is unlikely to take that news sitting down.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter