China Balances Ties on Korean Peninsula

As North Korea held a military rally to show support for its new leader on Monday, Chinese President Hu Jintao welcomed his South Korean counterpart to Beijing in their first summit since Kim Jong-Il’s death. From The Washington Post:

While North Korea is often a topic when Chinese and South Korean leaders meet, the death of its leader last month pushed it to the center of the summit, which was to have focused on mending frayed relations over Chinese fishing fleet incursions in South Korean waters and Beijing’s support for Pyongyang.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao exchanged “candid views on the situation on the Korean peninsula which has recently faced a crucial moment” and agreed to work together to achieve peace and stability there, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in a statement.

The three-day visit will include a meeting between China and South Korea’s nuclear envoys and initial discussions about a potential free trade agreement, though divisions on the Korean peninsula have taken top priority. On the eve of the summit, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin reaffirmed the government’s commitment to developing friendly ties with the North Korean regime, part of a comprehensive effort by China to guide both sides towards stable footing. The balancing act reflects a growing wariness from South Korea and other neighbors in the region over China’s intentions, according to Reuters:

“Particularly with China’s rapid development altering the relative balance of power between the two sides, problems have arisen in Chinese-South Korean relations that need urgent attention,” said the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the official paper of China’s ruling Communist Party.

“Above all there is the problem of mutual political trust,” said a front-page commentary in the paper by Zhang Liangui, a prominent Chinese expert on Korean affairs.

The Global Times acknowledged the cooling relationship between China and South Korea in a Tuesday Op-Ed, suggesting that South Korea has unrealistic expectations but that the friendship can persevere:

China relatively holds a stable attitude toward South Korea. But in the eyes of South Korea, the basic tone of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Seoul is checked by that between Beijng and Pyongyang. They hope Beijing will support Seoul unconditionally. This is impractical.

South Korea destabilizes bilateral ties in a more direct way. In December, the alleged stabbing of a South Korean coast guard by a Chinese fisherman left South Korean media fuming.

Meanwhile, China’s failure in unconditionally condemning the North, as South Korean public opinion requires whenever the two Koreas clash, is seen as a betrayal of the Beijing-Seoul partnership.