China appeals to SKorea to help 'protect free trade'

China's No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, appealed to Korean business leaders Friday to help "protect free trade" in a new effort to recruit allies for its escalating dispute with Washington.

The South Koreans were the latest targets of a Chinese charm offensive that has been directed, with little success, at securing European support against President Donald Trump's threats of tariff hikes in the conflict over trade and technology.

Beijing is willing to "further open up," Li told them in the meeting at the Zhongnanhai compound where Chinese leaders live.

The group included a deputy chairman of Samsung Electronics Co., Yoon Boo-keun, and chairmen Chey Tae-won of SK Group and Sohn Kyung-shik of CJ Corp.

"China is willing to work together with Korea to protect free trade," said Li. "We're willing to together work with Korea to protect multilateralism, to together protect global peace and stability."

Chinese relations with Seoul are strained after Beijing destroyed retailer Lotte's business in China last year in retaliation for its sale of land to the South Korean government to install an anti-missile system.

The two sides discussed free trade and the "peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia," said another member of the group, legislator Chung Sye-Kyun, a former speaker of the country's National Assembly.