Questions rise over timing of Moon-Xi phone conversation

28-Jan-2021 Intellasia | KoreaTimes | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Chinese President Xi Jinping showed support for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and underlined the importance of diplomacy in nuclear issues, during his first phone call of the year with President Moon Jae-in late Tuesday, according to Cheong Wa Dae, Wednesday.

“Xi said that realising denuclearisation was in line with the common interests of Korea and China, and that China highly assesses and actively supports President Moon’s efforts,” a presidential source said.

Right after the 40-minute phone conversation during which the two leaders shared their views on the situation on the peninsula, the presidential office reiterated that Xi supported diplomacy for progress on Korean Peninsula issues, saying, “North Korea’s position to the outside world is that it has not closed the door on the possibility of dialogue with the US and South Korea.”

Xi also said he supports inter-Korean dialogue and talks between Washington and Pyongyang, according to the presidential office.

The two leaders also agreed to cooperate on realising the Korea-China-Japan summit which has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the diplomatic standoff between Seoul and Tokyo following their conflict over historical issues.

The phone call came as President Moon, in his last year in office, has been trying to gain the support of neighbouring countries, particularly China and Japan, in resuscitating talks with North Korea under new US Joe Biden administration. Since the beginning of the year, Moon has underlined the role of China in North Korea issues.

But the Chinese side did not mention Xi’s assessment of the Korean Peninsula situation, according to latest reports, reflecting differences between Seoul and Beijing in their diplomatic policy priorities. Some experts say the call had more to do with Beijing’s strategic competition with Washington rather than bilateral issues.

“From China’s point of view, the call was made to neutralise South Korea before South Korea-US cooperation is strengthened. With regard to the Korean Peninsula situation, Xi repeated China’s existing position,” Shin Beom-chul, director at the Research Institute for Economy and Society, told The Korea Times. “Therefore, China’s intention was to prevent the strengthening of Korea-US cooperation as it has determined that a stronger Korea-US alliance under the Biden administration would result in a strategic environment unfavourable to China.”

“These days, amid the rivalry between the US and China, China’s diplomatic outreach to South Korea cannot be interpreted without China’s strategic consideration of the US,” Lee Seong-hyon, director of the centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, said to The Korea Times. “It’s good that the Chinese leader called President Moon in the New Year. But then the fundamental reason is not because of South Korea’s national strength or own work but rather China’s perception of South Korea’s usefulness in dealing with the US as an ally of the US”

The timing of the Moon-Xi phone talks has raised eyebrows considering it came while Cheong Wa Dae has been trying to set a date for the first phone call with new US President Biden, who began holding a series of phone calls with world leaders immediately after he arrived at the White House last week.

Cheong Wa Dae explained that the phone call had been planned for some time due to the need to discuss preparations for the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 2022, for which the two countries have launched a joint committee to carry out various projects. Also Moon’s office added that the phone call was to exchange New Year greetings ahead of the Lunar New Year.

But some media reports have taken issue with the fact that the phone call with Xi came before Moon had a chance to talk with Biden since the new US leader took office, January 20. Some experts said the phone call can be seen as going against Korea’s diplomatic tradition, and as its tilting toward China.

“In diplomacy, symbolism is very, very important. All South Korean governments used to send an envoy to the US first, respecting the traditional importance of the South Korea-US alliance. This time, it is the new US administration. People would have expected the South Korean president to have had a phone conversation, particularly in the New Year, with the new Biden administration,” Lee added.

Cheong Wa Dae has declined to comment on which side initiated the call. But the timing is raising a high level of interest as it came a day after the new US administration indicated that it would continue its hardline stance on China.

“I think our approach to China remains what it has been since ? for the last months, if not longer. We’re in a serious competition with China. Strategic competition with China is a defining feature of the 21st century,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing, January 25.


Category: Korea

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