South Korea and China have agreed to restore bilateral military relations, which have remained sour following North Korea’s torpedoing of the South’s warship Cheonan in March last year and subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in October. The agreement was reached between Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie during their talks in Beijing on Friday.
According to a press announcement released after the meeting, the two ministers agreed to upgrade military ties to a level befitting the “strategic and cooperative partnership” that their two countries concluded in 2008. For this, Seoul and Beijing will soon launch a high-level “strategic defense dialogue,” strengthen exchanges in military education, make joint efforts to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and enhance cooperation in peacekeeping operations, disaster relief and fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
The most notable part of the four-point agreement is the proposed strategic defense dialogue. Under the accord, the annual talks will be held alternately in Seoul and Beijing, with the first session scheduled for July 27-30 in Seoul. Representing South Korea will be the vice defense minister while the Chinese side will be led by the vice chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
A high-ranking official of the Defense Ministry described the high-level dialogue as a turning point in the Seoul-Beijing military relationship. He said the strategic talks would pave the way for the two nations to deepen cooperation in managing security challenges on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.
While the agreement will without doubt help the militaries of the two neighboring countries normalize their strained relations, it should not be taken as a shift in Beijing’s stance on issues involving North Korea. Regardless of any improvement in military ties with South Korea, China will likely continue to coddle its traditional ally.
This point was well demonstrated during the defense minister talks. In the press announcement, Seoul wanted to name North Korea as the culprit of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong atrocities. But Beijing refused to do so. It even stopped short of warning the belligerent regime not to undertake unwarranted military provocations.
The limits of Seoul-Beijing military cooperation were also exposed by the rude behavior of Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Before starting his talks with Minister Kim on Thursday, Chen denounced the United States for as long as 15 minutes, embarrassing his guest.
Chen’s behavior was a breach of diplomatic etiquette, to say the least. He failed to exercise due courtesy toward his guest. His discourtesy was unforgivable given that his status was lower than Kim’s. Arrogance is the proper word to describe his attitude. In fact, this was not the first time that cocky Chinese officials behaved with arrogance toward their Korean counterparts.
What worries us is the likelihood that Chen might have unwittingly exhibited the perception the Chinese military has toward its Korean counterpart. If this is the case, it may be difficult to expect the coming strategic defense dialogue to be conducted on an equal footing.
Furthermore, some comments Chen made against the U.S. sounded like an attempt to weaken Seoul-Washington military alliance. After denouncing the U.S. as a symbol of hegemonism, Chen was quoted as saying that he knows well about the difficulties Seoul has in expressing its complaints about the alliance to Washington.
What was he driving at? Was he suggesting that Seoul could move toward Beijing if it were fed up with Washington’s overbearing dominance? If that is the message Beijing is trying to convey through the newly launched strategic dialogue, Seoul officials need to be wary of Beijing’s intentions.
Despite all these concerns, Seoul and Beijing made the right decision when they agreed to upgrade military relations and start strategic talks. We hope defense officials of the two countries expand common ground and pursue their common national interests, which include enhancing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.