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China 'Red Lines' a Hinderance for Envoy Ahead of May Leaders' Summit

Wang Yi swept aside Cho Tae-yul's plea for humane treatment of North Korean refugees, indicating an unyielding China during a 3-way leaders' summit in May.

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South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul (far left) talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (far right) on May 13, Beijing (@Yonhap via Kyodo)

Leaders of the People's Republic of China claim they play a constructive role in world affairs.

They talk of "overcoming difficulties" with other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, and handling relations in a rational and objective manner. 

In reality, China always acts in a way that serves its own agenda. Representatives of democratic nations are sidelined - particularly when they raise important human rights concerns. Meanwhile, strongman leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un receive favors and praise.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves to the crowd gathered for his speech in Matsue City on the afternoon of April 21. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)

A Risk for Kishida

This creates a dangerous situation for Japan. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is preparing to meet a Chinese leader in Seoul at the end of May. It will either be Xi Jinping or Premier Li Qiang.

Should Mr Kishida use the trip to highlight concerns about China's coercive and problematic behavior? Or is it better to play along with the notion espoused by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol that the summit will promote mutual goodwill and beneficial cooperation?

It might be argued that dialogue is welcome and helps keep the peace. However, the Chinese are not in a mood to listen to anyone's advice. Inevitably, they will use the summit to set out their so-called "red lines".

China presses other countries to follow a policy of non-interference in its affairs. Officials in Beijing have made it clear that nations that "bet against" China on the Taiwan issue will face consequences.

The island's legitimately elected president, Lai Ching-te will be formally inaugurated on May 20. China believes that South Korean and Japanese politicians should stay away from the inauguration ceremony. 

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Few governments officially recognize Taiwan diplomatically. Nevertheless, most people in Japan support democratic values and believe the country should establish warm relations with President Lai and his new government. 

North Korean Cruelty

Another issue that causes tension between China and its East Asian neighbors is North Korea. During a visit to Beijing at the start of this week, South Korea's Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul pleaded on behalf of the North's defectors.

Aerial view of the Tumen River seen from Namyang, a town in North Korea. (©Public Domain)

He pointed out that people who flee across the border are often captured by Chinese soldiers, who hand them back to guards loyal to Kim Jong Un. Human rights groups say the defectors are then detained indefinitely in labor camps, and their families are treated as traitors.

Minister Cho told Wang Yi that North Korean people must not be repatriated against their will. Instead, Cho contended, they should be transferred to their desired destinations.

This elicited a terse response that China's policy on the Korean Peninsula "remains unchanged." 

This is a disingenuous statement. 

In fact, while China's relationship with South Korea has cooled, the North Koreans are enjoying a "year of friendship" with China. There are rumors that preparations are being made for a visit by Kim Jong Un to China this summer. That is expected to be followed by a return visit to North Korea by Xi Jinping.

Russia's Costly War

The North Korean dictator appears to relish his role as an arms dealer to the Russian army. He recently visited military factories and posed with rifles and rockets. The continuing war in Ukraine is causing immense loss of life. ​​Russia lost 1,740 troops in a single day this May. That marked the highest number of daily Russian casualties since the start of the war in February 2022, more than two years ago, according to Ukraine's military.

Russian incumbent President Vladimir Putin is shown onscreen in Red Square in central Moscow, on March 18, 2024. (@ Reuters/Stringer)

China maintains that it is neutral in the war. It says it does not provide Russia with weapons. Nevertheless, Antony Blinken, America's Secretary of State, says China is the "primary contributor" to Russia's "defense industrial base".

Japan does not supply weapons to Ukraine but Prime Minister Kishida has been supportive of President Zelensky at international meetings. Kishida has pledged to help fund the rebuilding of the nation when circumstances allow. 

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When the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Tuesday, May 14, he said that Russia must pay for the destruction it has wrought on Ukraine.

"What Putin destroyed, Russia should and must pay to rebuild. It's what international law demands, it is what the Ukrainian people deserve," he said.

Rival Allies 

There is not much that the Americans and their allies can do to prise a wedge between Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin. For example, the Russian leader is due to pay a state visit to China this week.

Meanwhile, China is hoping to sow division between South Korea and Japan. And given the polarized nature of politics in South Korea, there will inevitably be some people there who would prefer to side with China rather than work towards rapprochement with Japan.

South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands on May 13 in Beijing. (from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website via Kyodo)

All of this provides a complex set of challenges for the new Japanese Ambassador to South Korea, Koichi Mizushima

He is expected to officially take up his post in Seoul by May 17. Fortunately, Mr Mizushima has extensive experience. He has already served as a minister in Japan's embassy in South Korea for a couple of years. Until very recently, he was the Japanese ambassador to Israel.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.