BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Friday he is willing to help ties with South Korea return to a "normal track" amid a rift over Seoul's deployment of a high-tech US missile-defense system to guard against North Korean threats.
Xi's remarks came in a meeting with South Korean special envoy Lee Hae-chan, who was dispatched to Beijing by new President Moon Jae-in on a mission to reopen contacts and seek a way out of the current impasse that has hit South Korean businesses hard.
China "is committed to resolving any issues through dialogue and coordination, which is in the fundamental interests of both countries and the region," Xi was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua News Agency.
Earlier in the day, Lee met with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Xi's senior foreign policy adviser, and on Thursday with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. They were believed to have held talks on prospects for containing North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons activities as well as the economic fallout over the deployment in South Korea of the U.S. missile defense system called THAAD.
It wasn't clear if THAAD came up in Xi's talks with Lee, during which the Chinese leader sat at the head of the table in a manner usually reserved for meetings with lower-ranking Chinese officials.
However, Lee was quoted by Xinhua as saying that South Korea "understood China's major concerns and was ready to strengthen coordination with China to remove any obstacles to the development of bilateral ties."
Lee earlier said Moon had sent him to China to keep communications open "at a critical time."
Seoul and Washington have argued that the missile system is aimed at North Korean aggression, while China sees it as a threat to its own security because its radar can peer deep into northeastern China. China is North Korea's biggest economic partner and source of diplomatic support and has come under heavy pressure to use its influence to rein in the North's missile and nuclear activities.
China says its influence has been exaggerated and has called on South Korea and the U.S. to end large-scale wargames seen as threatening by North Korea in exchange for the North suspending its missile launches and nuclear tests.
Beijing has retaliated against Seoul over THAAD by suspending visits to South Korea by Chinese tour groups and trips to China by South Korean entertainers. South Korean businesses have faced boycotts, especially the retail group Lotte which provided the land on which the missile shield is being constructed.
Wang on Thursday reiterated calls for its dismantling.
"We're now at a crossroads in our relations," Wang told Lee as he urged the new South Korean administration to make a decision to "remove the obstacles" that stand in the way of healthy ties between the two Asian economic powerhouses.
In recent weeks Beijing and Seoul have signaled a desire to repair relations following the election of Moon, who has taken a friendlier stance toward China than his conservative predecessor. Although he has sometimes criticized the THAAD deployment, Moon has not said he will remove it.
When Xi called Moon last week to congratulate him on his election, Moon reportedly asked Xi for help in ending the economic retaliation that has taken a toll on South Korean businesses.
Beijing has maintained its hard line, and in an editorial Thursday, the Communist Party newspaper Global Times said China's opposition "cannot be traded for the new government's friendly posture toward China."
"Stopping the deployment of THAAD is the bottom line of China," the newspaper said.
"Seoul needs to make a choice between deploying THAAD and resuming Sino-South Korean relations. It should not hope to have it both ways."