Whereas Beijing pursues the “one China” policy in cross-strait relations and strives for Taiwan’s eventual unification with the Chinese mainland, it does not favor “one Korea.” Instead, in the name of peace and stability, it seeks to preserve the “status quo” in the Korean Peninsula.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and the Chinese economy has benefited immensely from South Korean investment and transfers of technology. The two are to sign a free-trade agreement at the end of this year. In addition to economic ties, geopolitical factors also figure prominently. South Korea is an important component of the US strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region and therefore Beijing tries to play it off against Japan and the US.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) was in Seoul for a two-day visit last month. Wang and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-so discussed North Korea’s increasing nuclear threat, fine-tuned the schedule and program for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to South Korea toward the end of June, and other bilateral and regional issues. Yun called for Beijing to reaffirm “our common standpoint that we do not accept North Korean nuclear weapons.” Yun also asked China to make greater efforts to dissuade its erratic ally North Korea from conducting a fourth nuclear test and engaging in further provocation.
For his part, Wang called for a revival of the six-party talks aimed at the North’s denuclearization. This multilateral forum was hosted by China, and involved North and South Korea, the US, Japan and Russia.
The six-party talks consisted of five rounds of formal negotiations, plus numerous bilateral — US-North Korean — and trilateral — including China — informal consultations from 2003 to 2008, but Pyongyang refused to implement denuclearizaion, despite its formal pledge in the joint statement of September 2005.
No officials who took part in the forum from the US, Korea and Japan will admit it, but many analysts suspect things went terribly wrong from the perspectives of Washington and Seoul. They seem to have been hoodwinked by Pyongyang, with the connivance of Beijing.
In hindsight, the six-party talks and the other dialogues were a delaying tactic playing for the time necessary to enable North Korean scientists and weapons experts to undertake needed research for the development of nuclear arms and long-range missiles in 2006, 2009, 2012 and last year.
The US, South Korea and Japan have turned down China’s proposal to reopen the talks, but Beijing is not taking no for an answer. Wang pushed South Korean counterpart Yun hard, and offered to have South Korea “as a closer cooperating partner in the face of the new, grave challenges in the region and the world.” In the summit between Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this month, Xi is likely to push further joint efforts so as to draw South Korea closer to China.
Meanwhile, China is trying to drive a wedge into South Korean-US defense cooperation. Beijing has warned against the proposed US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile defense system in South Korea. In the wake of Pyongyang’s test-firings of a series of rockets off the coast of North Korea earlier this year, the US proposed the deployment of the advanced missile defense system in South Korea to intercept North Korean short, medium and intermediate-range missiles — and possibly Chinese missiles as well.