China has made much of the 70th anniversary of its troops entering the 1950-53 Korean War to send a warning to the US with tensions between the two superpowers at their highest in decades.
South Korean and the US-led UN coalition forces were pushed back to the 38th parallel dividing the peninsula after China weighed in on the side of North Korea.
In his speech Friday marking the anniversary, Chinese President Xi Jinping said what China hails as a victory in the war, essentially fought to a bloody stalemate, was a reminder that his country stood ready to fight anyone “creating trouble on China’s doorstep.” Though not explicitly naming the US, Xi’s message was without doubt directed at Washington.
He said Chinese troops had fought to protect peace and oppose invasion, ignoring the historical fact that the North provoked the war with assistance from China and Russia.
Beijing’s latest citation of the Korean War to reaffirm its military resolve amid an escalating rivalry with Washington should serve to remind South Korea of what is crucial to ensure its security.
Seoul has tried to maintain an equal distance from its traditional ally, the US, and its largest trading partner, China. With President Moon Jae-in’s administration preoccupied with reconciliation with Pyongyang, South Korea has recently seen its alliance with the US fraying as China and North Korea have strengthened their ties.
The Moon administration’s push for an early declaration of a formal end to the Korean War, which ended in an armistice, has been met with little enthusiasm from the US. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that adopting an end-of-war declaration would “obviously” be part of efforts to denuclearize the North.
The allies also remain different over the pace of transferring the wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops to Seoul from Washington. During a meeting with his South Korean counterpart earlier this month, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it would take time to meet conditions required for the envisioned OPCON transfer. The Moon administration hopes to retake the wartime operational control before Moon’s five-year term ends in May 2022, though the transition is not time-based, but conditions-based.
Seoul has been reluctant to respond to Washington’s move to expand the Quad group, which refers to Australia, India, Japan and the US, in the process of forming a multilateral alliance to enhance security in the Indo-Pacific region. The US has made no secret of its intent to use the new framework to counter “aggressions” from the Chinese Communist Party in all domains.
South Korean Ambassador to Washington Lee Soo-hyuck said during a recent parliamentary audit on his embassy that 70 years of the alliance with the US does not mandate South Korea to make the same choice for the next seven decades.
His remarks, which were criticized by many South Koreans as inappropriate, prompted the US to reemphasize the importance of the bilateral alliance. “Alongside our (South) Korean allies, 36,000 Americans gave their lives to defeat the expansion of communism on the peninsula. Our relationship, forged in war and reinforced by friendship and a shared love of liberty, is vital to peace and stability in both Asia and the world,” the US National Security Council said via Twitter.
While the South Korea-US alliance has been stretched thin since Moon took office, China and North Korea have worked to improve relations in the past two years after they worsened due to Beijing’s measured support for a series of international sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Xi has met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un five times since March 2018, even as denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang have hit a standstill.
Kim visited the cemetery of fallen Chinese soldiers in the North last week to pay respects to them.
Seoul now needs to recognize that continuing to keep an ambiguous stance between the US and China might make it the biggest victim of the intensifying rivalry between the two superpowers. Its economic interests with China cannot be allowed to undermine its vital security alliance with the US.
In response to North Korea’s display of upgraded strategic and conventional weapons in a recent military parade, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook told lawmakers last week that Seoul can deter threats from Pyongyang based on its combined defense posture with Washington. His remarks are yet another reminder of the ever-increasing need to strengthen the South Korea-US alliance amid the uncertain security environment.