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Amid soaring tensions, South Korea’s new leader to navigate fine line between Beijing, Washington

by

Staff Writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated new South Korean leader Moon Jae-in on Wednesday amid soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula, saying Beijing is willing to work with Seoul to “properly handle differences.”

Xi’s message to Moon comes as China and South Korea have seen their once-flowering ties wither after Seoul’s decision to install a U.S.-made anti-missile system in the country as a means of countering a possible North Korean attack.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system’s deployment has angered Beijing, which sees it as threat to national security because the system’s radar is powerful enough to peer into China’s northeast — potentially to monitor flights and missile launches.

In his message, Xi touted ties between the two “important neighbors,” which he said had yielded “positive contributions to regional peace and development,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

“China attaches great importance to its relations with South Korea and is willing to work with South Korea to jointly safeguard the hard-earned achievements in bilateral relations,” Xi said.

“On the basis of mutual understanding and mutual respect, China is committed to cementing political mutual trust, properly handling differences and enhancing coordination and cooperation, so as to push for the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties,” he added.

“I would like to work with you to ensure the development of Sino-South Korean ties better benefits the two countries and peoples,” Xi said in the message.

China has urged South Korea to scrap the THAAD plan, which was instituted under Moon’s predecessor, ousted President Park Geun-hye, who approved the installation amid growing threats from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Relations plummeted to their lowest point since they were established in 1992, with what Seoul has said is state-backed retaliation against South Korean businesses over the deployment.

Earlier this year, Beijing had vowed “unspecified countermeasures” in response to the THAAD plan.

Just hours before official results in the South’s presidential election were released Tuesday, China announced that it had recently conducted an operational test for a “new type of missile” in the Bohai Sea “to effectively deal with national security threats.”

Now, Moon must walk a fine line between Washington, its top security ally, and Beijing, its top trading partner.

On the campaign trail, Moon said the THAAD the decision had been made hastily and that his government should have the final say on its deployment, a statement that has irked the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, he vowed in a speech to “sincerely negotiate” with the U.S.

During the speech, Moon also said he was open to visiting North Korea under the right conditions.

He is expected to take a softer line on Pyongyang, something that could allow Beijing to embrace his presidency — at least initially — after months of uncertainty in the wake of Park’s ouster over an influence-peddling scandal.

“China certainly sees Moon’s success as good news leading up to potential engagement (or) dialogues with North Korea,” said Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “There is such an opportunity given his engagement inclination. However, Moon can influence Trump’s policy, but cannot determine it.”