South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will seek to ease concerns over his strengthening ties with the US and Japan when he visits Beijing this week, analysts said.
The conservative leader has made better relations with Washington and Tokyo a top policy goal but has left his China policy ambiguous, said Kim Heung-kyu of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security.
China also has some concerns about Lee’s tougher policy on nuclear-armed North Korea, analysts said.
At their summit tomorrow Lee and his counterpart Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) will discuss ways to strengthen ties, expand economic and trade relations and enhance regional cooperation, the presidential Blue House said.
The four-day visit “is expected to provide chances to confirm China’s support for and understanding of our diplomatic policies and strengthen close cooperation between the two countries in resolving the North’s nuclear issue,” it said in a statement.
Lee “has clearly indicated that his top priority in foreign policy is to improve strategic relations with the United States, while efforts to improve Sino-South Korean relations will focus primarily on upgrading economic cooperation,” analyst Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation wrote recently.
Efforts for trilateral security involving the US, Japan and South Korea “invite concerns in China that it might be used to encircle China or to strengthen coordination in response to any potential cross-Strait crisis,” Snyder wrote.
Kim said there was “growing concern in China that South Korea is being drawn into a US-led strategy to form a sort of a Northeast NATO and encircle China.”
Professor Lee Chul-ki of Dongguk University agreed that Lee’s “US-oriented” foreign policy is causing concern.
“President Lee has to dispel these concerns. This emerges as a big challenge for him during his visit to Beijing,” he said.
Professor Lee said China is especially concerned about whether South Korea will join a US-led missile defense program, which Beijing suspects is aimed at it.
“China is expected to convey its concerns to South Korea during [President] Lee’s visit,” he said.
Discussions on a possible free trade agreement (FTA) will also be on the agenda in Beijing. Seoul has already signed a sweeping deal with Washington that is awaiting ratification.
Analysts said China tends to see the Korea-US FTA as something that goes beyond economics and views it with a security perspective.
“China feels it necessary to counterbalance the FTA with its own with South Korea,” said professor Lee.
Six-nation efforts — involving China, the two Koreas, the US, Japan and Russia — to negotiate an end to the North’s nuclear programs appear to be making progress.
But Snyder said Beijing is apparently concerned that Lee’s tougher policy might have a negative impact on North Korea’s willingness to cooperate in implementing agreements.
“Aside from the nuclear issue, China’s cooperation is imperative for South Korea in leading North Korea to a soft landing through international cooperation,” Kim said.