China's President Visits South Korea, Snubs North Korea

China's president is in Seoul to meet his South Korean counterpart. In a not-so-veiled gibe at North Korea, the two leaders repeated their opposition to nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. We are reporting this morning on an important meeting between Asian leaders. China's president, Xi Jinping, is in Seoul today where he's sitting down with his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye. The meeting is seen as a bit of a jab at North Korea. China has long been an important defender of North Korea, but the leaders of both China and South Korea reiterated their opposition to nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. This two-day trip also comes just after Japan made moves to increase the reach of its own military, and this comes at a time when the United States and China are openly jockeying for power in East Asia. To talk about all of this, we have NPR's Frank Langfitt on the line from Shanghai. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, David.

GREENE: So frame this visit for us if you can. How significant is it?

LANGFITT: There's a lot of geopolitical action right now in East Asia. As you were mentioning, you have a rising assertive China. They're battling with Japan over islands, the U.S. warning China to kind the ease up. And analysts look at this trip right now as China finding a way to draw a bit closer to South Korea, which of course is a longtime, close American ally.

GREENE: Well, talk about that relationship. I mean, you know, as we said, China, the U.S., sort of seen as competing for influence and power in this region. The fact that China and South Korea have this meeting, seem to be growing closer, what does that mean for the United States?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, if you look at where South Korea is, it's kind of a microcosm for a dilemma that a lot of countries are beginning to face out here in East Asia. For South Korea, the relationship with the U.S. is primarily about security. The U.S. has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea protecting it from these sort of constant threats from North Korea. But South Korea of course has a much stronger economic relationship with China, with more than $270 billion in trade last year. So South Korea, like other countries out here, they rely on the U.S. for security, but China for economics. And so one of the questions that some countries are asking as they look, you know, way out into the horizon, is, how long is the U.S. military going to continue to dominate this region, and given some of the fiscal problems back in the U.S., what kind of staying power does the military have here?

GREENE: And we can't really talk about the presence of the United States in Asia without mentioning another close American ally, Japan. I mean, how do they fit into this equation we're talking about?

LANGFITT: Well, that's a part of what's going on in Seoul right now as well. You know, Xi's trip to South Korea was planned for some time, but this week, Japan's cabinet approved a change that would allow its military to help defend its allies. Now, when you hear that, it sounds more like a no-brainer, but concerns about Japanese militarism are still very much a live issue out here. It's been nearly 70 years since the end World War II, and, you know, China and South Korea were both occupied by the Japanese during the war. They suffered atrocities, so there's this shared distrust. So when Japan talks about expanding the role of its military, that draws China and South Korea a bit closer.

GREENE: You know, Frank, this visit by China's president to South Korea is seen as a jab at North Korea and its nuclear program. That makes this visit interesting. Where does China's president go next?

LANGFITT: Well, the next stop is North Korea, and the reason that's interesting is normally that's where Chinese presidents go first. Analysts see Xi Jinping as sending another message to North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un, who's really spent a lot of the last couple of years doing ballistic missile and nuclear tests. This has rattled the neighborhood, and it's really angered China. And this is away for Xi Jinping to show it.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt on the line from Shanghai, talking about some of the political maneuvering in East Asia. Frank, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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