S. Korea, China move past missile shield row

South Korean President Moon Jae In (far left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Berlin for the G-20 summit in July. Talks to resolve the missile shield issue started after their meeting on the sidelines of the event, says South Korea's presidential
South Korean President Moon Jae In (far left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Berlin for the G-20 summit in July. Talks to resolve the missile shield issue started after their meeting on the sidelines of the event, says South Korea's presidential office.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Both agree to improve ties ahead of leaders' summit, but Beijing reiterates opposition to deployment of US system

South Korea and China have agreed to improve their relations ahead of a summit between their leaders, as they move beyond a diplomatic row over a decision last year by Seoul to deploy a US missile shield.

Both countries, through their foreign ministries, issued a joint statement yesterday, stressing the "great importance" of bilateral relations and agreeing to "push for further development of their strategic cooperative partnership".

But China reiterated its opposition to the United States' Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) missile shield, while South Korea again provided the assurance that its deployment was for self-defence and not directed at a third country.

Yesterday's agreement, which came ahead of a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae In and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam next week, drew mixed reactions in Seoul.

While the ruling Democratic Party welcomed the "timely move", the main opposition Liberty Korea Party labelled it as "humiliating diplomacy" and insisted that Beijing still owed Seoul an apology for hitting back economically following the Thaad decision.

The Lotte Group, which bore the brunt of Beijing's fury, said in a statement that it would continue to sell its business units in China, but voiced hope that the new agreement would "lead to more Korean businesses including Lotte resuming activities in China".

A Chinese boycott of South Korean firms and K-pop stars since March, as well as a ban on South Korea-bound tour packages, has hurt South Korean pockets deeply. Tourist arrivals from China plunged 56 per cent year-on-year as of September, and the economic fallout for South Korea has been estimated at US$12 billion (S$16.4 billion).

The administration of Mr Moon, who assumed office in May, tried to stall Thaad initially with an environment review, but was later forced to push ahead with the deployment to guard against escalating North Korean threats.

Talks to resolve the missile shield issue started after Mr Moon's first summit with Mr Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Germany in July, according to South Korea's presidential office.

Signs of an improvement in frayed ties emerged recently, when the two countries renewed a currency swap deal worth 64 trillion won (S$78 billion). Some Chinese travel agencies then resumed selling tours to South Korea, sparking speculation that Beijing may have lifted travel restrictions.

Last week, defence ministers from both sides met for talks in the Philippines for the first time in nearly two years.

South Korea's nuclear envoy Lee Do Hoon flew to Beijing yesterday for talks with his Chinese counterpart Kong Xuanyou, and Mr Moon is expected to also meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang while they are in Manila for the Asean summit and its related meetings this month.

Mr Moon is also said to be planning a visit to China by the end of the year, and he is also expected to extend an invitation to Mr Xi to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next February.

But some experts remain circumspect, warning that the Thaad issue was likely to linger as the missile shield remains deployed on South Korean soil.

Dr Lee Seong Hyon, a research fellow at think-tank Sejong Institute, also noted that the row has changed public perceptions in both countries, which is something that cannot be undone easily.

"It will take some time for Chinese consumer sentiment to recover. Many South Korean people also remain quite angry with the Chinese government's use of economic retaliation," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2017, with the headline 'S. Korea, China move past missile shield row'. Print Edition | Subscribe