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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 3)

Politics 06:56 December 03, 2019

Wang Yi's visit
THAAD should no longer be hurdle in bilateral ties

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will arrive in Seoul, Wednesday, for a two-day visit during which he will meet key South Korean security officials and diplomats. President Moon Jae-in plans to meet Wang at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday.

Wang's visit raises expectations for a possible thaw in bilateral relations, which have remained strained since Seoul decided to allow Washington to install a missile defense system, called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), here in 2016. This will be his first visit to Seoul since March 2015.

The Chinese foreign minister is expected to deliver a message from President Xi Jinping about a possible visit to South Korea. If realized, it would be Xi's reciprocal visit for Moon's trip to Beijing in December 2017. It would also mark his first visit to South Korea since July 2014. Discussion topics between Wang and South Korean officials may also include the envisioned trilateral talks among President Moon Jae-in, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Chengdu, China, later this month.

In recent weeks, there have been hopeful signs for improvements in Seoul-Beijing ties even though China has maintained economic retaliatory measures against South Korea over the THAAD deployment. China's provincial officials have increasingly visited Seoul and other cities to discuss normalization of bilateral exchanges. They included Liu Jiayi, the Communist Party secretary of Shandong Province, who arrived in Seoul Sunday for a four-day trip.

To appease China, President Moon has implemented the so-called "Three-No" policy ― no deployment of additional THAAD units, no participation in a U.S.-led global missile defense program and no pursuit of a trilateral military alliance with the U.S. and Japan. Moon's approach toward China ― which some call Moon's "pivot" to Beijing ― is still being disputed, but it was rather a strategic decision to balance South Korea's diplomatic standing between the U.S. and China amid their increasing rivalry. It was also because Seoul needed to collaborate with Beijing to help resolve the North Korea nuclear issue and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The ostensible purpose of THAAD was to defend the South from North Korean missiles, but it has become evident that it is part of a broader U.S. regional strategy aimed at China. From China's perspective, the South's THAAD deployment damaged its own security interests.

Normalizing relations with China seems to be President Moon's top diplomatic priority at the moment, likely because South Korea's economic growth is unthinkable without China, the country's largest trading partner. Beijing is expected to soften its stance on Seoul because it also wants better bilateral ties at this point.

However, we should not forget that improving ties with China is a double-edged sword. On Friday, a Chinese military plane violated South Korea's air defense identification zone (KADIZ), again, after the Chinese government announced Wang's visit to Seoul. Chinese warplanes have reportedly breached the KADIZ more than two dozen times this year alone.

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