SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping called his new South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on Thursday to congratulate him on his inauguration, the first time such a call has been made from Beijing to Seoul and one that raises the prospect of a thaw in relations between the Asian neighbors.
Chinese leaders don't often make congratulatory telephone calls to new foreign leaders right after they take office, normally sending envoys days or weeks later carrying personal letters instead. The call to Moon took place just a day after he took office and comes amid increased regional tensions over North Korea as well as the deployment of a U.S. missile-defense shield in South Korea.
Moon told Xi during the 40-minute call that he plans to send a special delegation to Beijing for talks on both topics, Moon's office said in a statement. China has been upset by the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system that was approved by Moon's conservative predecessor as a hedge against North Korea, placing Seoul in a difficult spot between its closest military ally in Washington and its largest trading partner in Beijing.
China has already taken commercial retaliation against South Korean business interests on its soil, but will be hoping Moon follows through on his campaign pledge to review the missile system's deployment if elected. Beijing sees the system as a threat to its own security.
During Thursday's call, Xi reaffirmed China's opposition to the THAAD deployment, Moon's office said. Moon responded that he's aware of China's concerns and asked Xi to help resolve the difficulties facing South Korean businesses in China, it said.
Moon told Xi that it would be easier to settle the missile-defense issue if North Korea wasn't engaging in provocations, the statement said.
Moon said he hopes to meet Xi at an early date and Xi formally invited Moon to visit Beijing, it said.
While Moon may try to soothe Chinese anger over the missile-defense system, many observers say it appears too late to call for its withdrawal, which would greatly undermine South Korea's relationship with Washington.
Given that, the prospect for improved ties between Seoul and Beijing isn't clear, with some saying China won't back down until it gets a major concession on the system's deployment and others saying China is also eager for improved ties and will settle for less as long as it can save face on the missile-defense issue.
Moon's conversation with Xi came a day after he spoke with President Donald Trump, who in the phone call congratulated Moon on his election win and invited him to visit the White House. The two leaders also agreed to strengthen their alliance, the White House said.
While taking the oath of office Wednesday, Moon said he's open to visiting North Korea under the right conditions. Conservative critics have worried Moon's rise to power might cause a friction with Trump, who wants to increase pressure on North Korea with the help of China, the North's largest trading partner and aid benefactor.
Moon also received similar congratulatory calls from Japanese and Indian leaders on Thursday.
During his call with Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, the two leaders agreed that their countries must not let their difficult history hamper co-operation in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program, Moon's office said.
The call also touched on a controversial 2015 agreement over compensating South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan's military in World War II, Moon's office said. It said Moon told Abe that it was emotionally difficult for South Koreans to accept the agreement.
It wasn't clear whether Moon used the conversation to call for a renegotiation of the deal. He had promised during his campaign to renegotiate it.
Japanese officials have described the call as "positive and meaningful," with the two agreeing to cooperate closely to deal with North Korea.