China has expanded upon its first-ever frontline military hotline with a foreign force, South Korea, a U.S. ally wedged between the geopolitical rivalry of Washington and Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (R) greet prior to their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul, South Korea, in 2020.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Senior Colonel Tan Kefei announced Tuesday that the People’s Liberation Army and Republic of Korea Armed Forces revised a November 2008 memorandum of understanding that established lines of communication between the navies and air forces of the two nations.
“This current hotline is the first direct telephone link between the front-line troops of the Chinese military and a foreign military,” Tan said, “which has played a positive role in preventing misunderstandings and misjudgments between the Chinese and ROK naval and air forces’ front-line troops and strengthening crisis management and control by the two sides.”
The South Korean National Defense Ministry also released a statement noting the change, which it said would establish contact with China’s Eastern Theater Command, adding to the three existing lines with the Northern Theater Command.
The inter-Korean dispute once pitted the U.S. and China against one another on opposite sides of a bloody conflict that lasted from 1950 to 1953. An armistice ended the fighting, but the war technically remains ongoing to this day.
Still, Seoul has sought a warmer relationship with Beijing, even as Washington called on the international community to take a tougher approach to its top strategic competitor. While nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and a number of security agreements ensure the U.S.’ spot as top security partner, China is by far the country’s number one trading partner.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has appealed to both President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping for support in achieving peace with nuclear-armed North Korea. Efforts overseen by former President Donald Trump saw unprecedented progress but ultimately unraveled, with tensions having since returned to the Korean Peninsula.
But just as Biden prepared to take office in January, Moon sent a message that he would not be participating in the tougher approach against China assumed by Trump and embraced by his successor.
“South Korea–U.S. and South Korea–China relations are all equally important for us,” Moon said during a press conference just days before Inauguration Day in Washington.
About a month later, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke via telephone with his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong to mark what the former called “the first year” of “cultural exchanges” between the two “strategic partners.”
The two also specifically discussed the Korean Peninsula, which Wang said is “crucial for respective interests of China and the ROK,” an acronym for the Republic of Korea, the official name of South Korea.
“China always appreciates the ROK’s unique role in Korean Peninsula affairs,” Wang said. “Both parties should strengthen communication and coordination, and make efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Peninsula, and achieve the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a permanent peace regime on the Peninsula.”
Days later, the Biden administration held a trilateral meeting with South Korea and fellow U.S. ally Japan in order “to exchange views on shared North Korea-related challenges,” according to a State Department readout.
“The group discussed the ongoing U.S. DPRK policy review and stressed the importance of continued close cooperation and coordination,” it added, using an acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal title for North Korea. “They each shared their assessments of the current situation in North Korea and expressed their continued commitment to denuclearization and the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”
Despite both being allies of Washington, tensions exist between Seoul and Tokyo as a result of historic wounds that remain unhealed from Japan’s use of South Korean so-called “comfort women” for sexual favors during World War II, as well as other forced labor practices employed during the war by the Japanese for which South Korea still seeks reparations.