Moon Jae In in Beijing to mend frayed ties but may find it hard to put Thaad behind

South Korean President Moon Jae In and his wife Kim Jung Sook arriving in Beijing for the start of their state visit, on Dec 13, 2017.
South Korean President Moon Jae In and his wife Kim Jung Sook arriving in Beijing for the start of their state visit, on Dec 13, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/YONHAP

BEIJING - Visiting South Korean President Moon Jae In has said his country and China should broaden their economic partnership in eight areas including e-commerce, new technologies, and start-ups, as he sought to mend frayed ties between the two nations.

Speaking to South Korean and Chinese business excutives at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Wednesday (Dec 13), Mr Moon stressed the need to expand bilateral trade and investment beyond traditional manufacturing-based industries, to include services and new industries such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles.

He also pushed for negotiations to expand the China-South Korea free trade deal inked in 2015, so as to maximise benefits for both countries.

"If the past 25 years allowed us to build a path for friendship and cooperation, the next 25 years is time for us to sail towards co-prosperity. Our two countries share the same destiny and will prosper together," he said.

Mr Moon arrived on Wednesday for a four-day visit at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The South Korean leader is accompanied by a large business delegation of more than 260, a larger group than the ones which went with him in earlier visits to the United States and Indonesia.

Mr Moon's visit is meant to mend fraught relations, particularly in economic exchanges, which have stalled in the past 1½ years because of China's displeasure over South Korea's deployment of an advanced missile defence system.

It also comes at a time when tensions in the Korean peninsula have escalated over North Korea's nuclear and missile development programmes. Mr Moon and Mr Xi are expected to discuss ways to reduce tensions and to resolve the nuclear issue.

South Korea and the US agreed in July 2016 on the deployment of the US' Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system in the South as defence against North Korea's nuclear threat.

However, the Chinese are vehemently opposed to the deployment of Thaad in South Korea, which began in May this year, viewing it as a threat to China's security given the system's capability of tracking the Chinese military's movements.

Beijing took economic measures to pressure Seoul to stop the deployment, including banning group tours of its citizens to South Korea and cracking down on South Korean firms operating within China.

In the first sign of a thaw in ties, however, the two sides put out similar statements on Oct 31 saying they had agreed to put the dispute behind them and to improve relations.

This has been made possible through Seoul's reported agreement to conditions known as the "three Nos" - no deployment of additional Thaad batteries, no joining of a US-led missile defence network and no trilateral security alliance with the US and Japan.

Last month, the Chinese partially resumed group tours to South Korea.

Mr Moon, in an interview with China Central Television in Seoul that was broadcast on Monday, said he hoped the two countries "can get over the injuries caused by the Thaad issue and jointly step into a new era".

He is likely to find it hard going to get the Chinese to move beyond Thaad, however.

Chinese commentators have said that the "three no's" were only an interim solution to the Thaad issue even as these had been criticised by South Koreans as their government conceding too much to the Chinese.

While Mr Moon's visit will enhance mutual trust, Seoul should know that China's stance on the withdrawal of Thaad will not change as it greatly affects the regional strategic balance, Chinese analyst Lu Chao told the Global Times. He warned that bilateral ties would not change fundamentally until the Thaad issue was resolved.

And while Mr Moon during the interview gave the assurance that Thaad would not be invasive of China's security, the China Daily said this would be difficult to verify in practice.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a daily briefing on Tuesday that "we hope the Thaad issue can be dealt with properly", adding that the two countries could get ties back to normal by "respecting each other's core interests".

Mr Moon will meet Mr Xi on Thursday, the two leaders' third meeting since Mr Moon came to power in May.

A significant part of his visit, however, will be his trip to the western city of Chongqing, the base of Korea's provisional government during World War II when the country was occupied by the Japanese. Chinese analyst Zhao Minghao, writing in the Global Times, said this indicated that South Korea will make no concessions to Japan on historical issues.

The Chinese are worried over talk about a trilateral security alliance of the US, Japan and South Korea in response to the North's nuclear threat.

Additional reporting by Chang May Choon in Seoul