South Korean President Moon Jae In stresses trade and historical ties with China during visit to Chongqing

South Korean President Moon Jae-In (left) shake hands with China's Premier Li Keqiang (right) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec 15, 2017.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In (left) shake hands with China's Premier Li Keqiang (right) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec 15, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - South Korea’s President Moon Jae In has pledged to link his economic policies to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as he seeks to restore bilateral ties strained by Seoul's deployment of an anti-missile system that Beijing opposed. 

"I am confident a link between the Belt and Road Initiative and New North, New South policies will lead to peace and joint prosperity in the region," he told a business forum in the south-western Chinese city of Chongqing on Saturday (Dec 16).

He was referring to South Korea's new policies of expanding economic cooperation with China, Russia, Japan and Mongolia to the north and South-east Asia to the south.

Economic exchanges between South Korea and its largest trading partner China took a heavy hit in the past year over Chinese displeasure with Seoul's deployment of an American-made anti-missile system that Beijing said undermined its security interests.

Seoul says it is needed to counter North Korea's missile threat given Pyongyang's refusal to stop nuclear and missile development programmes.

China's retaliatory economic measures, including banning group tours to South Korea and cracking down on South Korean firms operating in China, shaved 0.3 percentage point off its North-east Asian neighbour's growth this year.

Mr Moon, who came to office in May, kicked off a fence-mending state visit on Wednesday that appears to be bearing fruit.

At their summit in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Mr Moon's visit was "an important opportunity to improve relations as we seek to find ways to carve a better path based on mutual respect and trust".

Mr Xi also welcomed South Korea's participation in the BRI.

On Friday, Mr Moon met Premier Li Keqiang who said official communications channels on trade and economics would be reopened soon. Mr Li also called for increased cooperation in finance, artificial intelligence, big data and people-to-people exchanges, among other things.

Several memoranda of understanding were signed including one to expand their bilateral free trade agreement to include services and investments.

In Chongqing on Saturday, Mr Moon called for economic cooperation with the city, a key node of the BRI and an engine of growth for the relatively poor western region of China.

"I believe economic cooperation between South Korea and Chongqing will greatly contribute to China's development of the west, as well as balanced development of China," Mr Moon told the city's party chief Chen Min'er at their meeting.

He also visited the old office of the Korean provisional government during World War II when Korea and large parts of China were occupied by the Japanese. He thanked Chongqing for lending support to Korean independence fighters and preserving historical sites linked to the independence movement, emphasising that the two countries "share a destiny that cannot be separated".

This visit underscored the common history of the two countries which experienced Japanese aggression in the first half of the 20th century and was Mr Moon's way of drawing the two countries closer, said analysts.

Commenting on China's efforts to improve ties with South Korea, Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said the relationship was an important one to China both economically and strategically.

"China desires good relations with its neighbouring countries and South Korea is an important neighbour," Prof Jia said.

However, signalling that the anti-missile system issue may be not behind the two neighbours, he said that once the North Korean nuclear issue eases, the anti-missile batteries will have to be removed.

Additional reporting by Chang May Choon in Seoul