When Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean war late last month he was not simply paying tribute to the legions of Chinese troops who took part in the conflict.
With hostilities growing on a range of fronts with the United States, Xi invoked China’s entry into the conflict to rally the nation in its rivalry with the US today.
To do so, he underlined the official line in China that the US was the aggressor, setting off the war with an attack on the Korean peninsula that led to China’s first and only armed engagement with US forces.
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“Seventy years ago, the imperialist invaders fired upon the doorstep of a new China,” Xi said on October 23 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. “The Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand – to fight war with war and to stop an invasion with force, earning peace and respect through victory.”
It is an account of the conflict told time and again throughout the country.
But it is also at odds with the consensus elsewhere in the world – including in South Korea, a US partner in the region – that the war began with an invasion by North Korean troops in June 1950, prompting Washington and its allies to intervene.
In recent decades, China has played down the importance of the conflict as it has sought to forge stronger economic ties with the rest of the world. But the anniversary has taken on greater prominence this year in China, as the country grapples with the fallout from its trade, tech and diplomatic tensions with the United States.
However, it is also a strategy that threatens to complicate Beijing’s ties with Seoul as calls grow in South Korea for its leaders to take Xi to task over the comments, observers say.
Those calls came to the fore at a South Korean parliamentary hearing on Monday when conservative lawmakers said the government of President Moon Jae-in should take a tougher line with China on the causes of the Korean war.
Kim Gi-hyeon, from the opposition People Power Party, told Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha that the government had not given an adequate response to Xi’s speech.
“When Japan distorted history [the government] vociferously protested, even calling in the Japanese ambassador, but now you are being submissive towards China,” Kim said.
For her part, Kang told the hearing that Xi’s speech represented a historical distortion from Seoul’s perspective.
Minister of National Defence Suh Wook also said it was “crystal clear that North Korea invaded the South, under the instigation of Stalin and Mao Zedong”.
But at the diplomatic level, Seoul’s response to the speech has been muted.
“We are clearly communicating our position to China and taking necessary steps,” Kang told the hearing, without elaborating.
That is in part because South Korea’s biggest trading partner is China. In 2019, trade between the two countries amounted to US$136.2 billion, almost twice the total between South Korea and the US.
But that relationship has not always been stable. In the summer of 2016, South Korea was dealt a severe trade blow when the Chinese government stoked nationalist sentiment and endorsed a boycott of South Korean consumer goods, tourism, and K-pop. The boycott was in response to a decision by then South Korean president Park Geun-hye to install a US anti-missile system that Beijing said could be used by American forces to spy on China.
It was not until over a year later that a newly elected Moon brokered an agreement with China to end the dispute.
Lee Seong-hyon, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, said Moon’s foreign policy had been marked by clear efforts to improve relations with China.
But Xi’s speech on the Korean war’s anniversary put Moon in a difficult position.
“The South Korean government under President Moon Jae-in wants to improve relations with China. So, Xi’s speech gave a dilemma to the South Korean government,” Lee said.
“The South Korean government is under tremendous pressure by many civil groups and academics to respond to Xi Jinping’s speech.”
The calls come as negative sentiment about China among South Koreans appears to be a record high, according to a report published last month by the Pew Research Centre.
Of the South Koreans surveyed, 75 per cent held unfavourable views of China, up 12 percentage points from last year. And the negative sentiment seems stronger among younger people in the country.
Anthony Rinna, a Seoul-based senior editor of research group Sino-NK, said he had noticed an increase in anti-China sentiment since last year, with demonstrations outside US military installations and in the capital’s main square being increasingly filled with rhetoric supporting US President Donald Trump’s hardline stance against China.
“South Korean conservatives tend to be the ones that really hammer home, from their perspective, the threat that China poses,” he said.
China’s online community and media were quick to hammer home their positions in early October, when rapper RM from the South Korean boy band BTS spoke of a “history of pain” shared between South Korea and the US, referring to the Korean war. The group was accepting an award from a US organisation for their contribution to South Korea-US relations.
Chinese state media outlets including tabloid Global Times were swift to criticise the group, calling their attitude “one-sided”.
Lee, from the Sejong Institute, said Beijing had “room for improvement” in its public diplomacy towards South Korea, such as preventing state-run media outlets from stirring anti-Korean sentiment.
“Global Times’ misguided effort to inflame patriotism by using the BTS speech only hurt Seoul-Beijing ties, especially at the level of the general public,” Lee said.
Zhao Ma, an associate professor of modern Chinese history and culture at Washington St Louis University in the US, said that although China’s leaders often spoke of the need for the country to improve its soft power, using the Korean war as nationalist propaganda would only be detrimental to China’s image in South Korea.
“This kind of extremely ideological approach to historical knowledge will not improve the image of China in the eyes of the [South] Korean people, and neither will it promote people-to-people exchanges between both countries,” Ma said.
Ma said the backlash against BTS was a clear sign that many Chinese youth lacked the ability and patience to understand history from the perspective of neighbouring countries.
“This kind of blind, so-called patriotism, is the biggest obstacle to China becoming a regional leader and world power,” Ma said.
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