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(News Focus) Speculation abounds over Xi's visit to Seoul amid Sino-U.S. trade tensions

Diplomacy 11:05 June 07, 2019

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, June 7 (Yonhap) -- Speculation persists over Chinese President Xi Jinping's possible visit to South Korea as early as this month, although rising Sino-U.S. trade tensions and North Korea's escalatory weapons tests have clouded the prospect of his trip here.

Local media have reported that China has been preparing for Xi's visit to Seoul for talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in possibly before the Group of 20 summit slated to take place in Osaka, Japan, on June 28 and 29.

South Korean officials rejected suggestions that any decision has been made over Xi's trip to Seoul, noting that both Seoul and Beijing are busy with preparations for their leaders' participation in various multilateral and bilateral talks during the G-20 gathering.

The Chinese Embassy in Seoul refused to comment on the issue, saying, "For now, there is no information to share."

This image shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Yonhap)

Xi's trip to Seoul, if realized, would come at a diplomatically delicate juncture when the United States is pushing to strengthen its network of regional allies under its Indo-Pacific strategy, which Beijing believes is aimed at countering its rising influence.

Washington has also been stepping up pressure on its allies to join its campaign against Chinese telecom titan Huawei, stressing that the company could pose security risks to their communications networks.

Predictions vary over whether Xi would travel to Seoul at a diplomatically sensitive time.

Some have argued that Xi may not visit the South this month to avoid aggravating tensions with the U.S. as his country struggles to cut a trade deal -- or at least a truce -- with Washington to ease American tariffs and address its economic slowdown.

Last month, trade negotiations between the major powers broke down amid Washington's push to end China's policy of bolstering its high-tech industries through what the U.S. calls unfair state subsidies, forced technology transfers and alleged theft of intellectual property.

The U.S. campaign against Huawei is escalating the trade tensions, and the U.S. has also urged the South not to use Huawei equipment, calling for the use of "trustworthy" telecom suppliers.

In addition to trade tensions, Beijing could consider whether it's right for Xi to travel to Seoul first without visiting Pyongyang when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has already visited th neighboring country four times in less than a year.

Despite the risks of greater tensions between the major powers, some analysts have said that Xi could visit Seoul given that through state media, Beijing has adopted a more aggressive foreign policy tone against Washington.

Last week, China's People's Daily, the newspaper of China's Communist Party, warned that Beijing could halt its supplies of rare earths, key ingredients of various products, including military equipment, as a countermeasure against the U.S.

It used an expression China has historically used before wars with neighboring countries: "Don't say we did not warn you." China employed the expression through state media shortly before the war with India in October 1962 and with Vietnam in February in 1979.

Against this backdrop, some observers have said that Xi could travel to Seoul to cement ties with the Asian neighbor in part to undercut the Seoul-Washington alliance and to show the domestic audience that it will not bow to U.S. pressure.

"There is ample reason for the Chinese leader to come to South Korea, as he might believe South Korea is a weak node of the U.S. alliance network in this region," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

"He can first target that node, which is a key one in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy," he added.

Growing anti-American sentiment in China is another variable that could affect Xi's decision to visit South Korea.

Amid the trade war with the U.S., some Chinese nationalists have recalled memories of the western powers forcing China to sign unequal deals and upending the Sino-centric order after the 1839-42 Opium War.

Seoul officials appear to be considering various summitry options, including one-on-one talks between Moon and Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering in Osaka, though their official stance is that nothing has been decided yet.

If they come to pass, the Moon-Xi talks could touch on a wide range of issues, including cooperation over the resumption of nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang that have been stalled since the no-deal summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February.

The two sides could also discuss the presence of a U.S. advanced missile defense system in South Korea. China has opposed the system, arguing that it could undermine its strategic security interests.

Xi last visited Seoul in 2014.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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