SEOUL — China’s visiting president, Xi Jinping, reminded South Koreans on Friday that their two countries had fought “shoulder to shoulder” against Japan more than four centuries ago, underscoring what analysts have called the main goal of his first official visit to the country: drawing South Korea away from Japan and the United States.
“Whenever there was a crisis, Korea and China always helped each other and overcame the crisis together,” Xi told a group of students at Seoul National University through a Korean interpreter.
“Four centuries ago during the Japanese invasion,” he said, people of both nations had held Japan in “enmity” and had “marched together shoulder to shoulder to the battlefields.”
China’s Ming dynasty sent soldiers to Korea during the 1590s to help Koreans fight Japanese invaders and keep them from reaching China. Xi also cited Japan’s military aggression in the 20th century, although he did not mention China’s own invasions of Korea centuries ago, or the much more recent Korean War, during which China fought on the North Korean side.
“Even young Koreans with the fuzziest sense of history know that the Ming saved Korea from state collapse,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
“By reinforcing this history, Xi is planting the seeds of pro-Chinese sentiment among the next generation of South Korean leaders,’’ Lee said. “In his effort to build a coalition with South Korea to collude against Japan, Xi is fanning the flames of nationalism, accentuating the common history of victimization at the hands of Imperial Japan in the 20th century.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that during his meeting with President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, Xi had proposed holding joint memorial services with South Korea next year to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Park’s office declined to comment on the Chinese announcement.
Xi’s trip comes as relations between South Korea and Japan are at their chilliest point in years, largely because of historical disputes rooted in Japan’s colonial rule over Korea during the decades leading up to World War II.
Many South Koreans are wary of what they consider Japan’s attempts, under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to whitewash its behavior during the war and the preceding decades. This has complicated matters for Washington, which would like its two key Asian allies to work together more closely in a region where China has been increasingly assertive and North Korea remains unpredictable.
Many South Koreans have complained that the Americans were condoning a dangerous move when they supported Japan’s decision this week to reinterpret its Constitution to expand its military role in the region.
Xi tapped into such sentiments Friday, sending the message that South Koreans have a friend in China as they ponder Northeast Asia’s fast-changing economic and geopolitical landscape.
South Korean trade with China now exceeds that with the United States and Japan combined. Most South Koreans, however, still regard the country’s close military alliance with the United States as its best guarantor of security.
“It’s China’s strategy to make South Korea drift away from the United States,” said Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.