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(News Focus) China's Xi expected to deepen practical ties with S. Korea
SEOUL, Nov. 15 (Yonhap) -- As China unveiled a new leadership council headed by Xi Jinping, the new Chinese government under Xi is expected to deepen practical economic relations with South Korea but little change is expected in its policy towards North Korea, officials and analysts said Thursday.

   The 59-year-old Xi secured the top posts of the Chinese Communist Party and its military at the end of a week-long party congress and is widely expected to officially succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao next March when approved by its rubber-stamp legislature.


"We welcome the formation of the new leadership in China headed by the Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping," Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said.

   Cho said South Korea expects its "bilateral relations with China to continue to develop under the new leadership."

   South Korea and China established diplomatic ties two decades ago and bilateral trade skyrocketed to US$220.6 billion last year from a meager $5 billion in 1992.

   The booming trade and investment ties were featured prominently in a January summit between President Lee Myung-bak and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, facilitating the start of free trade talks between the two Asian economic powerhouses.

   "China's new leaders have a better understanding of South Korea and will make efforts to further strengthen exchanges with South Korea," a senior Seoul diplomat said.

   If the countries forge a free trade deal, the diplomat said, "There will be closer institutional links between the two sides."

   In spite of closer economic ties, bilateral relations have been often testy when it comes to issues related to North Korea. China is also the North's key ally, economic benefactor and diplomatic supporter.

   Xi is said to be supportive of China's current foreign policy, which means there will be little shift in its policy towards North Korea, said Sarah Yun, director for public affairs and regional issues for the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute (KEI).

   South Korea's presidential election is set to take place in December and the near-term outlook for bilateral relations with China's new leadership will depend on who is chosen as the South's new leader, Yun said.

   "If the near-term Chinese policy towards the Korean Peninsula is unlikely to see a significant shift, the variable outcome of the South Korean presidential election may have a larger impact on the bilateral relations," Yun said in an article posted on KEI's Web site.

   "Depending on the presidential winner in Korea and Xi's vision for his decade-long term leadership, Korea-China relations could remain as an economic cooperative partnership or develop into a strategic cooperative partnership that actively engages various issues on a bilateral and multilateral level," Yun said.

   South Korea has been a staunch ally of the U.S. but a rising China is increasingly putting Seoul in a strategic and diplomatic dilemma between Washington and Beijing, the world's two superpowers.

   With U.S. President Barack Obama preparing for his second term and Xi taking command of China for the next decade, some analysts said a cooperative U.S.-China relationship would be a key for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,
"If U.S.-China relations deteriorate due to an emerging bipolar structure and nonstructural factors in the future, what lies ahead for regional powers such as South Korea will be a path full of difficult choices and dangerous pitfalls," said Joo Hyung-min, a researcher at the Seoul-based East Asia Institute.

   "From South Korea's viewpoint, the desirable scenario is for the current cooperation between Washington and Beijing to continue in the future so that South Korea can seek its security guarantee from Washington while deepening economic ties with Beijing at the same time," Joo said.