October 29, 2011
The week ending 28 October 2011 has seen the visit to South Korea of two senior officials from the United States (US) and China. During 26-28 October 2011, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Seoul to take part in the 43rd annual Security Consultative Meeting; while during 26-27 October 2011, China Vice-Premier and Deputy Party Secretary to the State Council, Li Keqiang visited Seoul for official talks on bilateral economic relations and North-South Korea relations. The subject and tone of the concurrent visits highlight important trends in South Korea’s two most important bilateral relationships.
Leon Panetta’s visit had an obvious and understandable security focus. Panetta reiterated the US commitment to South Korea, stating that US troop levels in the South would not be reduced from the current 28,500 despite spending cutbacks at the Pentagon. In a joint statement following the talks both sides confirmed plans to raise combat-readiness to deter North Korean provocations; confirmed a joint plan to respond to North Korean aggression would be completed by the end of 2011; and jointly urged North Korea to show genuine will toward denuclearization.
Meanwhile Li Keqiang’s visit culminated in a major proposal on economic cooperation delivered at a luncheon hosted by the four major ROK economic bodies, Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business, and the Korea International Trade Association (KITA). Li put forward a six-point plan on economic cooperation, which included speeding up of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations; green industry cooperation; and expansion of cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
The juxtaposition of the two state visits could not be more symbolic—China discussing economic growth and promise; the US discussing security cooperation and threats. The symbolism of the two visits is likely to be increasingly repeated as South Korea seeks to balance the economic promise of China and the security embrace of the United States.