Beijing’s choice of representative to attend the inauguration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday provides a fascinating insight into the shifting sands of Northeast Asian geopolitics.
On Saturday last week, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) announced that Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan (王岐山) was to attend the inauguration ceremony on behalf of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
In 2013, then-Chinese vice premier Liu Yandong (劉延東), who was also a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political Bureau, attended former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s inauguration.
For the inauguration of former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak in 2008, then-Chinese state councilor Tang Jiaxuan (唐家璇) attended. In 2003, then-Chinese vice premier Qian Qichen (錢其琛) attended the inauguration of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.
Wang’s attendance marks the first time that Beijing has sent a representative as high-ranking as a vice president to a South Korean presidential inauguration.
From Xi’s choice to send Wang, who is highly conversant in North Korean affairs, it is possible to infer that the election of a pro-US, Japan-friendly South Korean president has touched a raw nerve in Pyongyang.
North Korea has in the past few months conducted a series of ballistic missile tests, significantly elevating tensions on the Korean Peninsula as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to rage in Europe.
The stability of the Korean Peninsula is of paramount importance to Beijing. Viewed from the perspective of regional strategy, the area, which shares a border with China, is analogous to the territorial relationship between Russia and Ukraine.
This is why Beijing felt it necessary to dispatch such a high-ranking official to the inauguration and obtain a personal assessment of the leadership group surrounding South Korea’s new president. Xi aims to better understand what Yoon’s intentions are regarding Seoul’s northern neighbor.
With Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida siding with the US over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow announced that it would send military reinforcements to the disputed Kuril Islands, which Tokyo claims were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
The situation in Northeast Asia, already tense, might be about to worsen significantly: China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US might be gearing up for a six-way tug-of-war competition.
Jason Lee has a doctorate in international politics from National Chung Hsing University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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