By Andy Lim
South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s widely anticipated meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping on Thursday, June 27 in Beijing — trumpeted as a “journey of hearts and trust” — promises to shed light on the directions the two new leaders plan to take Northeast Asia in the coming years. Although it lacks the uniqueness of the recently-concluded “shirt-sleeves” Sunnylands summit between Xi and President Obama, this meeting brings with it promises of not only fostering a better chemistry between Park and Xi, but hope of progress on stalled denuclearization in North Korea, a chance to further cooperation on their respective foreign policies, and an opportunity for Park to win the hearts of the Chinese.
President Park is no stranger to China, having been four times before, most recently in 2011 as the then-leader of the Grand National Party. Coincidentally, this is also not Park’s first meeting with Xi, having met Xi when he visited Seoul in July 2005 as the party secretary of Zhejiang Province. Her fluent Chinese speaking skills have provided her favorable perceptions in China, cited widely as a reason why her inauguration has been good for China-ROK relations.
Even before the trip took place, there are already a few developments that distinguish Park’s visit from her predecessors. Picking China as her second trip abroad, after her trip to the United States, is a first for any South Korean president – the traditional choice had been Japan. Her unusual choice to visit historic Xian is not only a first for any ROK president, but it separates her from the usual choice of visiting Shanghai after Beijing. The record 71 business leaders confirmed to accompany her also signals positive economic intent. This large group trumps the 51 who went with her to the United States this May, and is almost twice the 36 who accompanied former president Lee Myung-bak on his trip to China in 2008.
President Park believes the summit comes at an “important juncture” in ROK-China relations, and understandably all preparations possible have been made to make this summit a success. One example was the visit by General Jung Seung-jo, the chief of staff of the ROK Army to China on June 4. It was special not only because he made the trip on a military transport plane, but was also given a personal tour of the PLA Navy’s North Sea Fleet base in Qingdao, a first on both occasions. President Park herself has prepared assiduously for this trip, clearing her schedule from June 21-23 to focus exclusively on the summit. She reportedly spent time brushing up on her language skills as she is expected to deliver at least one speech in Chinese during her time in China.
This leads to the question of what to expect from the Park-Xi summit, and three potential deliverables stand out. The first was hinted a month ago during her interview with the Washington Post while visiting the United States, where Park voiced her wish to enlist Xi’s help in solving the North Korea problem. This wish was reinforced earlier this week when she called for using the summit to harden cooperation on denuclearization. This comes at an opportune time when the buzz for reviving the six-party talks is intensifying. The second is the ROK-China free trade agreement, and there are hopes that Park will use this platform to push for momentum on this critical trade deal during a time of economic slowdown for both countries. With the 6th round of negotiations set for next week, and a series of MOUs on economic cooperation expected to be signed during the trip, Park will do well to secure economic gains with ROK’s biggest trade partner. The third is a possibility that Park will use this visit to “upgrade” the current strategic cooperative partnership to a higher level, a feat which would cement her personal bond with China. Even if that high-bar is not achieved, both Park and Xi are expected to issue a joint communique to lay out the future of the relationship.
If there are any sure things in this summit, a high point on Park’s agenda is explaining to Xi her “trustpolitik” and Northeast Asia peace and cooperation initiative, which are critical to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, a goal both leaders share.