The Proposed Defense Ministry Hotline Between China and South Korea


The first bilateral defense ministry meeting between China and South Korea, held in Seoul on February 4, agreed on working-level consultations to establish a direct hotline between their defense ministries. Such a hotline could transform strategic crisis management between the two nations, but significant technical and other issues remain to be resolved. Still, this represents another diplomatic initiative between China and South Korea, as their relations continue to improve. Chinese defense minister General Chang Wanquan met with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo, and agreed to begin work on setting up the hotline, although he also raised questions about the possible deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and about South Korea’s recent signing of an intelligence sharing accord with Japan and the U.S. Can the new hotline succeed? What is needed to make it work?

Is a Hotline Needed? 

Recent maritime developments in East Asia necessitate a new approach for effective crisis management: Communications must be improved between the militaries at an operational level, and also between the defense ministries. Over the last decade there have been frequent clashes between Chinese vessels fishing illegally and South Korean law enforcement units, and since China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea in November 2013, which includes the disputed submerged rock of Ieodo, there is now potential for conflict in the air. The two navies are also building up their underwater assets, with South Korea establishing its first Submarine Force Command in February 2015 to counter North Korea’s newly developed indigenous submarine class capable of launching ballistic missile.

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A three-dimensional crises management system is thus required in the Yellow Sea, since both countries’ economies depend on maritime peace and stability. Both militaries now possess sophisticated C4ISR systems which can monitor, track and target operational objectives, but for effective security they need to exchange details of their intentions and actions, providing prior notification of activities in sensitive areas where heavily equipped platforms are deployed. Such strategic communications should encompass the highest level of military authority.

Will It Work?

Unfortunately, defense hotlines seem to be understood by China and South Korea primarily in symbolic terms, rather than as a military communications channel to reduce the scope for misinterpretation. This kind of confusion has limited the effectiveness of the existing navy and air force hotline already operating between the two countries, so that recent altercations between illegal fishing vessels and the South Korean coast guard in the Yellow Sea have resulted in the exchange of divergent perceptions about each other’s activities, but nothing more constructive.

Another problem concerns vaguely defined command structures, which can allow jingoistic and authoritarian forces to use the hotline as a tool for their own political purposes. Thus, the maritime hotline between the North and South Korean navies, established in 2004, has been blighted by North Korean political machinations. Also, the task of hotline end-users is often complicated by the deployment of sundry forces to disputed territories, including law enforcement personnel, marines and ground forces, and by routine patrols and surveillance activities proceeding in a dangerously ad hoc fashion. This was the reason why China and U.S. failed to implement the maritime hotline they agreed in 2008 – there were too many actors involved.

What Does a Successful Hotline Need?

The upcoming working-level consultations between the Chinese and South Korean militaries must focus on some basic requirements that are essential if the hotline is to be effective.

Operational Areas Must Be Clearly Defined: It must be clear how assets should be deployed and used, and which other vessels are permitted free passage. Different definitions apply to wartime and peacetime operations: In wartime, an Area of Responsibility is defined from a national perspective and concerns the proper use of specific weapon systems; in peacetime, an Area of Interest ensures freedom of navigation by following further principles established to guide on-scene commanders. The end-users of a defense hotline need to have a clear understanding about what kind of operational area is involved when a maritime crisis occurs, but this information is sometimes withheld or is deliberately opaque. Such confusion caused two serious incidents during January 2013, when Chinese naval forces locked weapons-targeting sensors onto a Japanese destroyer and a helicopter near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Rules of Engagement (ROE) Must be Clear and Robust: Obviously, the exact details of ROE are not generally revealed to potentially hostile parties, but end-users of the maritime hotline should have ready access to the ROE relevant to the issues under discussion. It is surely feasible, except in wartime, to share some basic information about specific bilateral ROE; vague multilateral rules like those agreed at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium last year are inadequate. This should probably include the safe distances to be maintained from other parties’ ships and aircraft, and some outline of which behaviors are restricted, such as collision maneuvering, simulated attacks, and moving gunnery for targeting purposes. ROE directives communicated by hotline should be specific and time-limited, detailing the period for which and the circumstances under which either naval or civil law enforcement forces may initiate and continue the use of force.

Hotline End-Users Should Be Under a Clear Unified Chain of Command: The end-users of a hotline should be integrated into a sound top-down chain of command so that they can provide on-scene commanders with clear guidance, resulting in more prudent behavior from individual units in chaotic situations. In China’s case, there are embedded linkages between numerous military and political organizations, so that it is never quite clear who is in charge. For South Korea, the ultimate source of ROE will become uncertain if the U.S. deploys its controversial THAAD system. A single unified command system, covering both the active operational units and the end-users of maritime hotlines, is indispensable to their effective functioning.

The Role of Hotline End-Users: End-users of the defense hotline will normally communicate through a common language, and a coordinated protocol must be established to allow them to provide a transparent and sophisticated response to their counterparts on the other end of the hotline. Depending upon their political and military level of responsibility, these end-users may have access to full, operational, or tactical communications, but in any case their priority must be to maintain preventative diplomacy, not to promote national sovereignty, irrespective of any issues of legitimacy.

A Welcome Stabilization

As military technology advances, crises that develop in sensitive areas can get out of hand much more quickly. The new hotline should not be regarded as a panacea, but it could function as a very effective channel to mitigate differences and misunderstandings between operational units deployed in the Yellow Sea. Several of the world’s most capable militaries have a presence in the region, including the U.S. forward deployed forces in Japan, and there is a serious risk of regional conflict being triggered by some unplanned contingency. The defense ministry hotline gives hope that the Chinese and South Korean militaries will work together as partners to enhance regional maritime security, which will also help third parties like North Korea, the U.S., Japan and Russia.

Sukjoon Yoon is a retired navy captain and a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. He is also a visiting professor at the Department of  Defense System Engineering, Sejong University, Seoul, Korea.

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