South Korea and China announced Tuesday that they will work to improve their relationship, which has been badly strained by the deployment of an American missile defense system, with Seoul saying their leaders are set to hold talks next week.
The thaw in relations comes amid increased regional tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and ahead of President Donald Trump’s scheduled visit to both countries next week as part of his first Asian tour.
Relations between Beijing and Seoul have been testy since South Korea allowed the U.S. to deploy a contentious missile defense system on its soil, triggering economic retaliation from China. China views the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system’s powerful radar as a threat to its own security. South Korea and the U.S. say the system is purely defensive and aimed at countering possible North Korean threats.
China and South Korea recently agreed that they should soon normalize their relations and boost cooperation for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
The ministry statement said Beijing reaffirmed its opposition to THAAD and asked South Korea to handle “relevant issues appropriately,” while South Korea reiterated the system doesn’t target China. It said military officials of the two countries will discuss Chinese worries about the THAAD system.
Seoul’s presidential office announced separately that President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold summit talks next week on the sidelines of an annual regional forum in Vietnam. It would be their second one-on-one meeting since Moon’s inauguration in May.
China’s Foreign Ministry in its own statement did not mention a summit. In that statement, Beijing repeated its objection to the anti-missile system but it indicated an interest in improving ties. It said both sides attached great importance to their relationship and were willing to push forward on developing a cooperative partnership.
Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said later Tuesday that Beijing had noted that South Korea stated it would not consider deploying an additional THAAD battery on its soil and made other gestures toward China’s concerns.
“We hope South Korea can honor its commitments, translate its words into actions and properly deal with the relevant issue,” Hua told reporters at a daily news briefing.
Tuesday’s South Korean statement didn’t mention whether it has agreed not to deploy more THAAD batteries, but the country’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, told lawmakers in Seoul on Monday that South Korea wasn’t considering an additional deployment.
A protracted standoff over the THAAD issue was not expected to benefit either country and restoring ties is seen as in both China and South Korea’s best interests.
Many badysts say China appeared to have used its THAAD opposition to bolster its regional clout but that such a stance could push South Korea closer to the United States and Japan for a potential anti-Beijing trilateral alliance.
In South Korea, there have been growing worries about frosty ties with China, which is its largest trading partner and some South Koreans say might one day replace the United States as the world’s sole superpower. In retaliation for the THAAD deployment, Beijing suspended visits to South Korea by Chinese tour groups and trips to China by South Korean entertainers. South Korean retail and auto businesses in China suffered anti-South Korea sentiments.
It remained unclear how quickly China would move to remove its sanctions against South Korea. Staff contacted at travel agencies in northern China said they had yet to receive official word from the government that group tours might resume.
The move to thaw relations with South Korea comes as China grows increasingly frustrated with North Korea, which has relied on Beijing as its main trading partner. As North Korea’s last major diplomatic ally, China’s cooperation is seen as crucial to the success of international sanctions on the North’s weapons programs.
China banned imports of North Korean coal, seafood and textiles and ordered North Korean-owned businesses to close in line with new U.N. sanctions imposed after the North its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September.
North Korea has vowed to continue its nuclear program and build a more reliable arsenal of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. It has previously called the THAAD deployment an American plot to bolster its military hegemony in the region.
Tuesday’s announcements by Seoul and Beijing came after Xi consolidated his already considerable power at a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress that concluded last week.