Chinese foreign minister trip to South Korea first in five years

A clear step toward normalizing relations

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Seoul for a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-hwa. Wang’s visit to Seoul is the first by a Chinese foreign minister in five years. The two ministers discussed the need to normalize bilateral relations. They also discussed a wide range of global and regional issues, including North Korea, and explored the possibility of setting up a meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit in Sichuan, China later this month. Wang also expressed Beijing’s desire for Seoul to join the Belt and Road Initiative, and criticized “unilateralism” and “bullying” as the “biggest threat” to global stability – without mentioning the U.S.

An alignment of interests . . .

For many observers, Wang’s visit to Seoul signals the normalization China-South Korea relations, which have been severely damaged since the installation of an American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea in 2017. China interpreted THAAD as a threat to its national security, and retaliated by imposing de facto bans on trade and people-to-people exchanges with South Korea. But today’s current geopolitical climate has pushed both Beijing and Seoul toward an alignment of interests: China wants to improve its relations with South Korea in the midst of the ongoing trade war with the U.S., while South Korea would benefit from a pivot to China as the U.S. continues to pressure Seoul over defence costs.

A path forward for Canada . . .

It has been almost a year since Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained by Beijing in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, Canada on a U.S. extradition request. South Korea’s difficulties with China over the THAAD crisis parallel many of Canada’s current woes. The THAAD and Huawei crises are not one-off issues, but rather structural challenges emerging from the new geopolitical realities of the so-called ‘G2’ rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Middle power diplomacy – which consists of balancing relations between great powers and collaborating with other like-minded countries – is once again important for Canada.