|President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, Dec. 23, 2019. Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Despite the South Korean government's years-long efforts to contrive Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Seoul, chances of him traveling here before President Moon Jae-in leaves office next year are gradually diminishing, as Beijing seems to be intent on using the trip as a bargaining chip amid a deepening U.S.-Sino rivalry, while the visit itself is losing its charm for China due to a lack of benefits, according to diplomatic observers.
Since Moon last traveled to China in December 2019, the Moon administration has sought Xi's reciprocal visit to Seoul to address remaining economic retaliatory measures imposed by Beijing on South Korea following the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system here and also to discuss the North Korea issue.
During a series of senior-level meetings between the two sides so far, including last week's foreign minsters' meeting between Chung Eui-yong and Wang Yi, the Chinese president's visit was always high on the agenda, according to South Korea. But the meetings have not led to any mention of Xi's return visit yet. Also, the Chinese government has not made contents of the meetings public.
The Chinese government attributes the delay to the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts believe that China is utilizing the Xi trip as a diplomatic bargaining chip in its hegemonic competition with the United States.
"The delay in Xi's visit is part of China's diplomatic strategy to make use of South Korea amid the U.S.-Sino rivalry," said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
"As South Korea badly wants to restore bilateral economic ties estranged by the THAAD deployment when Xi comes to Seoul, the Chinese government is leveraging his trip to force Seoul away from the U.S."
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor of international relations at King's College London, said the Chinese leader has been strategic in his foreign visits, by traveling often to Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America, where China and the U.S. are competing for influence.
"In this sense, South Korea would be less of a priority for Xi because bilateral relations are better than they were in the aftermath of the THAAD deployment. But at the same time, South Korea is a U.S. ally and since Seoul will continue to prioritize its alliance with Washington and is not going to side with Beijing, a visit by Xi wouldn't have the same geopolitical impact as his visits to other parts of the world," he said.
Amid the intensifying diplomatic row, the U.S. government is seeking to rally its allies, including South Korea, against the challenges posed by China, through various forms including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). But the South Korean government has been reluctant to join the coalition due to a possible backlash from the Chinese government.
In response, seeing South Korea as the weakest link in the U.S.' strategy to isolate China, Beijing is also making efforts to have Seoul distance itself from Washington.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, said scant signs of improvement in inter-Korean ties in the future are also impeding Xi's visit to Seoul.
"Xi most likely does not want to start an engagement process with South Korea ― like a major summit ― knowing that inter-Korean ties are about to sour even more due to North Korean provocations likely to happen in the coming months," Kazianis said.
"Why would Xi want to put himself out there on the world stage in a way that he will be called to reign in North Korea or feel any diplomatic pressure to do so? Xi will stay away as it is in his interest to do so, or at least until he has some sense of what North Korea might do."
Pundits believe that the Chinese government is skeptical that Xi's visit will create the results it seeks given that President Moon's term is nearing its end on May 22, 2022 and the trip has been shelved. But there is still the chance of another visit to South Korea after a new president takes office, they added.
"Xi not making a promised visit to South Korea is ostensibly because of the pandemic, but probably has more to do with a lack of deliverables," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University.
"China's leader wants a win on international trade or on geopolitically pulling Seoul away from Washington. The Moon administration wants to put China's economic coercion in the past and to make coordinated progress on North Korea. But Beijing will likely save its leverage as it sees Moon entering the lame-duck period of his presidency."
Shin also expressed a similar view, saying that China is likely reviewing whether it is still necessary for Xi to make a belated visit to South Korea, with Moon in his final year in office.
"If Xi plans to come here and end the economic retaliation, China would think that it would be better to do so with a new South Korean government for better bilateral relations. The idea may be under consideration in Beijing," he said.
Pacheco Pardo said, "Xi will only visit Korea if China can gain any benefits from the visit, which in any case is normal for all government leaders around the world. So I think that Xi would see a visit to Korea as a way to try to prevent Seoul from cooperating even more with the U.S. and the Quad countries."