China’s top diplomat stresses S.Korea ties amid row with U.S.

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China’s top diplomat on Thursday stressed the importance of bilateral relations while meeting senior officials in South Korea, where there is growing concern the country is becoming squeezed between China, its biggest trading partner, and military ally the United States.

After meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that his visit during the coronavirus pandemic shows how much Beijing values its relations with Seoul. He called for stronger cooperation over anti-virus efforts, trade and finding a peaceful solution to a nuclear standoff with North Korea.

When asked whether Beijing was pressing Seoul to choose a side amid rising U.S.-China tensions over trade, security and other issues, Wang said “America is not the only nation in the world.”

“There are 190 countries and each of them are sovereign nations,” he said. “They include China and South Korea, which are close neighbors and should visit each other more often, like relatives.”

Wang later met with President Moon Jae-in, who acknowledged bilateral accomplishments in fighting the virus and maintaining essential business exchanges despite tightened border controls, according to a pool report.

Moon also urged Beijing to continue serving a “constructive role” in international efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and helping improve relations between the rival Koreas.

Wang replied that Seoul and Beijing have set a “role model” for international cooperation amid the pandemic and conveyed a message by Chinese President Xi Jinping that he considers his “friendship and trust” with Moon as “very important.”

Moon’s ambitions for inter-Korean engagement have faltered amid stalled nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, which have disagreed over the release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.

China, as North Korea’s only major ally and economic lifeline, is seen as having unique leverage over the government in Pyongyang.

Wang arrived in Seoul following a visit to Japan, where he met Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

In Tokyo on Wednesday, Wang told Suga that he wants the two Asian powers to have good relations and cooperate in fighting the coronavirus and reviving their pandemic-hit economies. But the two sides remain at odds over an island dispute.

South Korea has been eager to repair its relations with China, its biggest trading partner, which reacted furiously to Seoul’s decision to deploy an advanced U.S. anti-missile system on its soil in 2016 to better cope with North Korean threats. There is also concern in South Korea over a deepening row between Washington and Beijing over trade, security, human rights and other issues, which could force Seoul into a difficult balancing act.

China, which says the U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea could be reconfigured to peer into its territory, had been accused by Seoul of retaliating by limiting visits by Chinese tour groups to South Korea. Beijing also destroyed South Korean supermarket giant Lotte’s business in China after the company sold a plot of land to the South Korean government where the anti-missile system was later installed.

South Korea had hoped to secure a visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping this year in what Seoul officials describe as a key step in repairing relations, but the pandemic has complicated such plans.

When asked about a possible Xi visit, Wang pointed to the face masks worn by reporters, saying that the coronavirus must first be contained.

South Korea on Thursday reported 583 new cases of the coronavirus, its biggest daily increase in about eight months, as a resurgence in the capital region threatens to erase hard-won gains.