Now is the time for Korea and China to look back on the past, face the present and talk about the future. Over the past 30 years, Korea-China relations have developed explosively. The establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations was an important turning point in advancing the new era of prosperity in Northeast Asia. And now both Korea and China have grown into the core countries in the international community. China has grown into a major powerhouse in the international community, and Korea has become a globally charming country. Nevertheless, it is also true that there is some friction and conflicts due to the rapid growth and compressed development of the relationship. However, the two countries should endeavor to overcome the current growing pains and build a more mature partnership. Korea and China are neighbors that cannot move away from one another. This geographic condition makes us take an approach in a longer-term perspective, with a longer breath. In honor of the 30th anniversary of Korea-China diplomatic relations this year, we should further strengthen the infrastructure of the relationship and establish a new type of Korea-China relationship that enables strategic communication.
This week the series will be covering defense & military, following discussions on society & culture, economy & trade, and politics & diplomacy over the past three weeks. For this week's conversation, we have invited two experts from the field. Professor Yoo Dong-won from Korean National Defense University (KNDU), who served the director of US-China Research Center at KNDU, and Col. Chen Yue, associate research fellow at the War Studies Institute at The People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Sciences and an expert on the Korean Peninsula, contributed to today’s discussion.
Hwang: Looking back at the last 30 years of history, how was the military relationship between Korea and China?
Yoo: For the past 30 years, military relations between Korea and China have developed under the influence of political, diplomatic, and economic conditions both at home and abroad. Around 1993-94, a military attache to each embassy was established, and in 1992 and 1994, the Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited China to hold the first meeting between the military leaders of the two countries. In 1995, a working-level defense policy talk was first held to coordinate and cooperate in military exchanges between the two countries. Since 1999, Korea and China’s Minister of National Defense held mutual visits, and in 2002, the Foreign Policy and Security (2+2) Dialogue between Korea-China began, followed by the mutual exchange visits between cadets and naval fleets. Later in 2003, another mutual visit of the Minister of Defense was held, and the Korea-China Defense Dialogue became more active along with regularization of defense policy meetings in the director levels and military exchange programs beginning in 2004. The navies of the two countries conducted joint search and rescue drills also, which was basically a preliminary form of joint military drills. Additionally, in 2008, Korea and China installed an air-sea direct line and conducted another joint search and rescue drill.
Chen: Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Korea and China have strengthened cooperation under the spirit of ‘mutual respect, equal and mutual benefit, peace and coexistence, and good-neighborliness.’ We are deepening mutual political trust, amalgamating our interests, and maintaining unprecedented level of consultation and cooperation in international and regional affairs. Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations, high-ranking military personnel from the two countries have visited each other quite frequently, and the number of delegations visiting each other annually is more than 20 on average. These factors have supported the development of bilateral relations across a wide-range and in multidimensional areas.
Hwang: There must have been damage to Korea-China military relations because of the THAAD issue.
Yoo: The military relations between Korea and China were halted for a while in the wake of North Korea's attack on the Cheonan corvette in 2010 and another one toward Yeonpyeong Island. Bilateral military relations were restarted through the talks between Korea-China Ministers of Defense in May 2011. Later on, the relations were severed following Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD in July 2016. In October 2017, the Moon Jae-in government tried to improve relations with China by mentioning '3NO (no additional THAAD deployments, no joining of a broader U.S. missile defense system, and no Korea-US-Japan military alliance)', however, relations have been minimized due to COVID-19. Until now, defense strategy dialogues, the Foreign Policy and Security (2+2) Dialogue, and most of the defense academic exchanges in search and rescue training have been suspended.
Hwang: How would you assess the current military relations?
Chen: The militaries of two countries established a close functional department exchange system, defense strategy dialogue, working-level meetings in defense policy, and regular exchanges systems and have signed a Memorandum of Understanding for defense exchange and cooperation. Also, since 2014, remains of Chinese soldiers have been returned to China nine separate times. In addition, the Minister of Defense's direct lines to the army, navy, and air force were opened, which led to several mutual visits of deck planes. Now, the Ministers of Defense have direct lines to each side’s army, navy, and air force, as well as lines to Korea’s Master Control and Report Center and to China’s Northern theater commands.
Yoo: In general, we see military relations develop from military exchange, military cooperation, and to military alliance in an order, and the current Korea-China military relations could be said to be at the rudimentary military cooperation stage. Compared to other developments in economies or social and political areas, the process is going quite slow. In particular, the level of institutionalization is still low, despite the fact that the agreement on establishing military trust building measures (a hotline, search and rescue training, etc.) was signed recently, the internalized stage is insufficient.
Hwang: What could be the reason that the military area is developing slower than any other part of Korea-China relations?
Yoo: The reason for the conflicts in Korea-China military relations is not because of direct bilateral friction, but rather due to the impact of external factors such as North Korea and the Korea-US alliance, and lack of empathy in terms of strategic issues. In specific, it is largely influenced by North Korea's nuclear weapons, US-China relations, Korea-US and US-Japan alliance. In this sense, these issues constrain Korea-China military relations, and conflicts caused by external factors have accordingly become more complicated to resolve.
Hwang: What do you think the future direction of military cooperation between Korea and China is?
Chen: High-level military communication between the two armies should be sustained. Based on the principle of mutual respect and equality, we must work to exclude any interference from third-parties, resolve misunderstandings and deepen mutual trust through building close strategic communication. Moreover, high-level strategic communication between the two armies should be strengthened along with promoting high-level exchanges and dialogue mechanisms.
We can also think of adding Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region’s security issues in the bilateral strategic dialogue agendas to protect peace and stability, establishing a system between the two armies to notify and immediately communicate about serious situations, so that we can avoid strategic misjudgments and resolve various constraints. The development of military relations between the two countries should be promoted in all directions to become the joint pillar for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, regional cooperation, and further resolutions of global problems. Exchange and cooperation in bilateral, regional, and even global affairs should be further intensified, and the contents and measures of cooperation should be expanded. The Korea-China armies should continuously endeavor to broaden common interest and sustain cooperation in all dimensions by holding discussions on establishing a permanent cooperative system in areas such as disaster relief, maritime relief, public health, peacekeeping, navigation protection, and others.
Yoo: For international cooperation, Korea and China should not be too immersed in either the international structure or the US-China competition, but should secure their respective security interests from a more flexible and open perspective. Under the current international structure, security and military interests between Korea and China overlap with each other, therefore, exclusive and independent claims of rights may eventually deteriorate the relations and might be misunderstood as interference in the domestic affairs of one another. This is why military and security issues must be pursued in a low key manner and carefully with responsibility.
Hwang: What do you mean by excluding third-party interference?
Chen: First of all, all the local issues and sensitive problems should be appropriately dealt with. As the THAAD issue has emerged as the most serious challenge since the establishment of diplomatic relations, joint efforts are required to manage it well. Recently, Korea and China’s ministers of foreign affairs held a meeting and the two sides agreed to value each other's security concerns and make efforts for leniency so as not to interfere with bilateral relations. Both countries should not provoke each other and strictly follow the consensus so that these problems do not come up to the surface again. Another notable thing is that the cooperation paradigm of the Korea-US military alliance stays under the intention to expand the siege and territory. Korea and the US are allies, and Korea and China are inseparable neighbors and close cooperative partners at the same time. The Korea-US alliance should not undermine regional peace and stability, nor should damage China's strategic security interests. China consistently respects Korea's grave concerns. Therefore, the Korean and Chinese militaries should also continue to implement the agreement between the two leaders, remember the initial commitment from back when we were establishing diplomatic relations, maintain an appropriate position on issues related to the other's core interests, and further develop Korea-China relations with good military connections.
Hwang: What are the major challenges to Korea-China military relations?
Yoo: Military relations between Korea and China in the future are still dependent on variables such as changes in international relations, strategic competition between the US and China, the domestic politics of the two countries, and North Korea. The US-China strategic competition at the global and regional level is likely to pose various risks to the development of military relations between Korea and China as well as Korea's foreign policy. It presents new tasks for Korea's foreign affairs and security, as the prolonged Russia-Ukraine war increases the possibility of negative effects on the international political and economic order, along with the Korea-China relations. Changes in the global strategic environment will provide an opportunity and a great challenge for Korea-China military relations.
Hwang: What should we do if we seek to specify cooperation between the two armies?
Chen: The two armies should further strengthen exchanges between functional departments and related fields, resume maritime rescue, and expand practical cooperation in non-traditional security areas including maritime rescue, counterterrorism, sanitation, and others. It is necessary to also tighten up the communication exchanges between young officers, and to expand inter-visit of young officers by arranging short-term education, exchange learning, and student exchanges at military schools in various forms to develop more ‘China Experts’ and "Korea Experts’. Additionally we can think of increasing the number of mutual visits between ships and scale of direct naval and air phone line connections.
Yoo: I guess we need to develop theories and logic development on "peace and cooperation" rather than "confrontation and war" at the global and regional level, and especially in terms of the Russian-Ukraine war, we must take a sober analysis at the academic level. In the end, exchanges between scholars are essential for the development of theories and logic related to "peace and cooperation." Efforts to expand communication with experts and strategists between Korea and China and to regularize or institutionalize low-level exchanges are highly suggested.
Hwang: Do you have any other comments you would like to add?
Yoo: The Korea-China military relationship has not fully recovered yet, but there are channels going on for dialogue and communication between the two countries' defense ministries and between the militaries. Also, the fact that the Korean and Chinese navies conducted three search and rescue drills as a coalition is meaningful in the aspect that it was a trial to realize the agreement into an action. If military relations between the two countries further develop in the future, it will basically provide an opportunity to promote military cooperation in non-traditional security areas such as PKO, disaster relief, anti-piracy, and so on.
Chen: Both Korea and China have great influence in Northeast Asia and they play an important role in Asia-Pacific, Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, the Korea-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific region. There is no reason for the two countries to fail in establishing a firm bilateral relations, no reason not to consider each other's core security concerns, and no reason to alienate and even confront each other due to third-party factors. Korea and China should also take joint measures to cooperate in security challenges without missing historical opportunities.
Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.