South Korea is baffled as to how to interpret Chinese President Xi Jinping's display with his seemingly friendly public face during his meeting with President Park Geun-hye held on the sidelines of the G20 Summit.
Despite the well-publicized Chinese indignation over THAAD, and the uncertainty until days before the G20 as to whether a meeting between Xi and Park would materialize, Xi greeted Park with a broad smile on his face Monday morning. He didn't give the kind of solemn and frowning look he put on when he met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting in Beijing in 2014 when tension over the two nations' territorial disputes were escalating.
Xi started his conversation with Park by delving into a "soft topic" ― the historical linkage of the Chinese host city, Hangzhou, to Korea. Xi also underscored the friendship and cooperation between the two nations. Based on media texts, it was only toward the end of their meeting that Xi brought up the subject of THAAD, expressing China's displeasure with it. Even then, he did so only mentioning it in passing.
Park and Xi didn't engage in a heated debate over THAAD. Each side stated their position on the matter and ended the meeting on time ― in a business-like manner ― with smiles and handshakes.
The way China staged the meeting was similar to the way it traditionally handles problems with North Korea and vice versa. Despite their well-known uncomfortable relationship, China and North Korea avoid going head-on at the highest leadership level and refrain from verbally attacking the other publicly. As a result, they carry on the public face of friendship and amity. (This comes as a useful contrast to the case of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's defaming U.S. President Barack Obama this week that led to the cancellation of their meeting.)
Importantly, this very aspect of public face saving served as one of the major unspoken principles that have preserved the often icy Sino-North Korean relationship even today, despite numerous outside predictions that the couple would be about to divorce.
For instance, among the charges in Jang Song-thaek's indictment in 2013 was the accusation that the powerful pro-China politician "sold off precious resources of the country at cheap prices" to a foreign country. But the North Korean authorities didn;t mention which country it was, while it was obvious that it was China.
This feature of restraint at the top leadership level was preserved even during the Cultural Revolution period (1966–76) when China-North Korea relations were undergoing one of their lowest moments as each side accused the other of being "revisionist" and "dogmatist" respectively.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang even put up a Red Guards-style wall poster that criticized North Korea. The North Koreans demanded the Chinese embassy remove the material. The Chinese rejected it. The North Koreans blocked the alley that led to the Chinese embassy in order to prevent people from seeing the anti-North Korean propaganda slogan made by China. In response, the Chinese embassy put the slogan on the embassy's rooftop so that the North Korean leadership couldn't do anything about it. It was a chilly confrontation, affecting even the personal ties of the leaders of the two countries.
However, when Kim Il-sung criticized China, he didn't name it, but instead criticized "certain people" in the socialist bloc as misbehaving, while it was so obvious to the beholders who he was referring to.
At the G20 meeting, Xi didn't want the world to see the full-blown rupture between Beijing and Seoul. That would be a diplomatic catastrophe in their relationship. Nonetheless, it would be inaccurate to characterize that Xi "softened" his stance on THAAD. Rather, it would be a fairer observation to note that Xi's attitude with Park was more "businesslike." The fact that the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency promptly revealed Xi's opposition to THAAD less than 30 minutes after the end of the meeting indicates that the Chinese side prepared the media text in advance, anticipating the discord over THAAD would not be resolved during the Xi-Park meeting.
In conclusion, Xi's decision not to publicly show the fracture in China-South Korea relations is based on the same line of strategy that China applies in handling issues with North Korea. It also means China attaches strategic importance to its ties with Seoul. This is three fold. First, China doesn't want to alienate South Korea too much over their disagreements about THAAD. Beijing doesn't want to see an estranged Seoul drift closer towards Washington. Second, the mutually high economic dependence between Seoul and Beijing functioned as a "shock absorber" this time. Third, it was overridingly important for Xi to stage the G20 meeting as a shining success to showcase his leadership to his domestic audience. Xi wants China's largest global event this year to go seamlessly, while putting aside THAAD ― for a few days.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.