SEOUL, South Korea — 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, highlighting what analysts have called the main goal of his visit: unsettling America’s alliances in Northeast Asia.
Japan and South Korea are the United States’ closest allies in Asia, and the Obama administration has been struggling for months to thaw a chill in relations between them as it seeks to counterbalance China’s rise. Xi’s remarks were viewed by analysts as trying to take advantage of the rift.
“Whenever there was a crisis, Korea and China always helped each other and overcame the crisis together,” Xi told a group of students at prestigious Seoul National University, which educates many students who will join the political elite. “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.”
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.
Xi spoke through a Korean interpreter.
The fighting the Chinese leader was referring to took place in the 1590s, when China’s Ming dynasty sent soldiers to Korea to help fight Japanese invaders and keep them from reaching China.
“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. 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 proposal.
Xi’s trip comes at a time when 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 South Korea during the decades leading up to World War II and its use of Korean women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war.
Many South Koreans are wary of what they consider Japan’s attempts, under 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 as China challenges the United States for dominance in the region and as North Korea remains unpredictable.
Although most South Koreans still regard the country’s close military alliance with the United States as its best guarantor of safety, many also complain that the United States does not take a tough enough stance with Japan over its history. That feeling was exacerbated this week when the United States supported Japan’s decision to reinterpret its constitution to expand its military role in the region, a move that South Korea calls dangerous.
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.