By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- As Chinese leader Xi Jinping has strengthened his grip on power through the recent party congress, South Korea is closely watching what ramifications it could have on the strained relations between the two countries.
Some experts cautiously expect that, as he is relieved of the burden of dealing with the crucial political event, Xi will be more flexible on external affairs, including the prolonged feud with South Korea over the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system called THAAD.
Hopeful signs have emerged recently. The two countries agreed to renew their currency swap arrangement earlier this month, and the defense ministers of the two countries held their first talks in two years Tuesday.
China completed its week-long 19th party congress on Tuesday, in which Xi cemented his power as he enters his second five-year term. His name and ideology were enshrined in the country's constitution, elevating his status to that of Mao Zedong.
"As anticipated, the 19th congress was a platform in which Xi reconfirmed his strong leadership. Xi's grip on the party, the government and also the military has apparently been strengthened in a meaningful way," said Kim Han-kwon, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
"As was made clear on several occasions, he is expected to intensify his efforts to realize a strong China during his second term," he added.
Ever since Seoul announced the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system on its soil last year, China has voiced its protest and demanded the reversal of the decision, saying that it will hurt its strategic security interest.
Beijing has taken what appear to be retaliatory steps against South Korean companies and products in various areas.
There were expectations before the congress started last week that China could be more proactive in mending its ties with its neighboring countries, including South Korea, based on its strong and renewed leadership.
"It seems that Xi, to some extent, has cleared his political burden domestically, and this could provide momentum to improve Seoul-Beijing relations," Kim said.
Guarded optimism was fueled weeks ago, when South Korea and China announced that they would renew their currency swap arrangement worth 64 trillion won (US$55 billion), a move seen by many as a signal of a thaw in their bilateral relations.
A currency swap is a tool for defending against financial turmoil by allowing a country beset by a liquidity crunch to borrow money from others with its own currency.
On Tuesday, the final day of China's congress, the defense chiefs of South Korea and China held their first bilateral talks in nearly two years. The discussions took place in the Philippines on the sidelines of a regional security forum. This is also seen as a meaningful step toward warming the two countries' ties.
"Given that China rarely sends its high-ranking officials to outside events, it seems that Beijing has put a lot of importance on the meeting," a government source said on condition of anonymity. "I think the fact that the defense chiefs of the two countries met is, in and of itself, meaningful."
There are still skeptics cautioning against reading too much into a political event or expecting any significant change in Beijing's stance in a short period of time. They even worry that things could get tougher.
Though Xi didn't mention any specific issues involving China's neighbors or others during the congress and emphasized cooperation and coexistence with other countries, he made it clear that China would not sit idle when its national interest was hurt, a point that experts say could cast a cloud over any outlook for a quick recovery in relations with South Korea.
Choi Kang, vice head of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, echoed the point.
"There were expectations that things would turn around after the congress. But the congress was all about the big picture," he said. "It seems that China will not seek a new approach when it comes to its policies toward the Korean Peninsula."
"Specifically with regard to its relations with South Korea, China could, rather, put more pressure on it. ... Of course, China could feel burdened to use excessive pressure that might prod South Korea more towards the U.S. -- still, it is hard to expect any sudden reconciliatory gestures from Beijing."
Yang Gab-yong, the head researcher of the Institute of China Studies at Sungkyunkwan University, said that China will not likely to seek a significant change in its existing policy directions, nor will it push for a strong diplomatic drive.
He did, however, express the hope that the upcoming summit between the United States and China in November and a possible meeting between the leaders of South Korean and China by the end of the year could provide a much-anticipated breakthrough to the current stalemate.
"It is expected that China will likely continue its policy of the previous five years and stay with it for the time being ... but it could try to find solutions to specific issues through bilateral meetings with the countries involved," he said. "One of the major opportunities for that would be the summit between Xi and Trump next month."
"With regard to the THAAD issue, it would be hard to restore the strained ties to normal between South Korea and China, no matter how often both sides have working-level discussions, given that the Chinese leader mentioned (the withdrawal of the missile defense system)." he said. "There is no way other than to meet and find a breakthrough between the leaders."
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