The Korea Herald


Blinken visits China to ease rising tensions, S. Korea closely watches developments

By Choi Si-young

Published : June 18, 2023 - 18:26

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The flags of South Korea (right) and China. (123rf) The flags of South Korea (right) and China. (123rf)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Beijing on Sunday on a high-stakes two-day mission to cool off growing tensions with China, with neighboring countries such as South Korea closely monitoring developments.

On the first day of his tour, Blinken was expected to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and top diplomat Wang Yi ahead of a possible meeting with President Xi Jinping the following day, according to US officials.

The rare trip was a follow-up on what Xi and US President Joe Biden agreed at their in-person meeting held in November 2022 on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Blinken postponed a previously planned February tour over an alleged Chinese spy balloon that flew over the US.

Shortly before departing for Beijing, the US secretary of state highlighted restoring what he calls “open and empowered” communications so that the US-China competition does not slip into “confrontation or conflict.”

“He will also raise bilateral issues of concern, global and regional matters, and potential cooperation on shared transnational challenges,” the US State Department said.

But few expect the trip to lead to any breakthroughs on the long list of disputes ranging from trade to security -- a divide that has forced countries to back either the US or China. Washington’s support for a chip alliance sidelining Beijing and for Taiwan in its standoff with China, which claims the self-ruled democracy as its own, has deepened the US-China divide.

For South Korea, however, the much-anticipated trip by the top American diplomat is pushing policymakers in Seoul to be on alert as they search for potential spillovers into frosty Seoul-Beijing ties.

In the last two weeks, Korea and China called in each other’s top envoy in a tit-for-tat spat over the Chinese ambassador’s public warning on making a “wrong bet” on China losing out to the US.

Experts say the Blinken trip, chiefly meant to prevent US-China ties from spiraling out of control through reviving regular communication channels, would do little to mend Seoul-Beijing relations.

“The China tour will most likely reestablish a baseline from which the two countries can work out their differences, making predictable to the outside world what their actions are going to be from now on,” said Kang Jun-young, a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Korean policymakers could therefore face fewer uncertainties involving US-China relations, Kang added, noting however such change does not necessarily mean a thaw between Korea and China.

Chung Jae-hung, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, said Seoul and Beijing would have to work out their differences on their own to improve relations.

“Unless Seoul reverses its position on Taiwan, for example, or Beijing acknowledges a US-leaning Korea, all of which are not something we are likely to see happen anytime near soon, I don’t see any change in the status quo,” Chung said.

In April, President Yoon has openly referred to China’s claims to Taiwan as a global issue, saying he opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo on the democratically-ruled island by force. Beijing, which says it could take over the island if necessary, had lashed out at the Korean leader.

But efforts for amicable relations are underway. The Foreign Ministry in Seoul says it is still pushing to resume regular three-way talks involving China and Japan within this year. Working-level discussions between Seoul and Beijing over the talks are delayed but not suspended indefinitely, according to a Seoul official with knowledge of the matter.

Last week, Foreign Minister Park Jin raised hopes for a thaw, saying he expects to meet with his Chinese counterpart in July at the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia’s biggest security gathering. In a phone call with Park on Saturday, Blinken supported Korea’s efforts to build a “healthy and mature relationship” with China that “respects reciprocity.”