Beijing’s Korean Dilemma

During the primary debates, practically all the U.S. presidential candidates have demanded that China pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear missile programs. By insisting Beijing accede to the American strategy of sanctions designed to bring about North Korea’s collapse, Washington is actually proposing nothing less than that Beijing, with its own hands, pave the way for American troops on the 1,360 km China-North Korea border (approximately 845 miles). The U.S. wants to show the whole world that it’s able to force China to act any way the Americans please, even with respect to neighboring countries allied with China, which North Korea remains, at least by right.

Beijing can’t afford to remain indifferent to the fact that Korea would turn into a U.S. beachhead for pressuring China in the grand competition already unfolding between these two powers, the world’s strongest powers economically and perhaps militarily. For China, due to reasons involving both military strategy and political prestige, the dissolution of North Korea especially by force is totally unacceptable. Such a development would lead to the establishment of U.S. control over the entire Korean peninsula and direct access by U.S. armed forces to the land border with China at Manchuria, where the main bases of China’s defense industry are concentrated.

The “loss” of North Korea would seriously undermine China’s prestige and foreign policy positions in Asia and throughout the world. Who among China’s neighbors would begin to depend upon China as a reliable ally if China were to give up such a traditional sphere of influence as the Korean peninsula without a fight?

Among other things, such an outcome would mean giving the U.S. the advantage of the results of the Korean War of 1950-1953, during which the Chinese lost nearly 700,000 men on the Korean front, including Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s son. That Beijing hasn’t forgotten in whose name the victims’ lives were given up was shown by the October 2009 visit to North Korea by then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who laid flowers on Mao Anying’s grave and thus sent a clear message to everyone who understands the symbols of eastern diplomacy that China doesn’t intend to lose a “second Korean War” without, as they say, firing a single shot. Surrendering North Korea to the “imperialists,” no matter how it’s arranged, is fraught with losing the positions and standing China has built up over many centuries. China can hardly afford such a loss of face.

Moreover, the loss of Korea would seriously undermine Beijing’s chances to return Taiwan. Those who are puzzled as to why the Chinese don’t “trade” North Korea for Taiwan don’t understand that following China’s loss of North Korea, the Americans would take a much tougher stance toward China both on Taiwan and on the situation in the South China Sea; not least of all because they would effectively acquire the potential for a disarming strike against China from the Korean beachhead.

There is yet another argument for trying to force Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang: speculation about China’s fears that the advent of nuclear weapons in North Korea might prompt similar steps by Japan, South Korea, and, most disturbingly for Beijing and Taiwan.

But those who would like to exert influence on Beijing in such a way prefer not to notice another condition that significantly changes the assessment of the situation. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is no more and perhaps even less interested than China in such a development in the region. The acquisition of a nuclear deterrent by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would make the U.S. presence in the region unnecessary in its current form. A significant part of the population and political elite of Japan and South Korea — countries of the Confucian civilization — is already pretty fed up with the status of the half-occupied states, the senior ally’s arrogance, and American soldiers’ rowdiness toward their citizens. The nuclear status that many politicians in these countries dream about would almost certainly lead, among other consequences, to a review of their bilateral military alliances with the U.S. and a possible withdrawal of American troops. Such a turn of events would be a serious blow to American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, which is designed to force China to play by American rules and accept U.S. domination in the region.

Yet the biggest nightmare for Washington is the emergence of even a small probability that its attempt to establish control of the entire peninsula might push China to restart a military and political alliance with Russia, even one that remotely resembles the former Soviet Union’s alliance with China.

The caution with which the Americans at present conduct themselves in Korea is explained precisely by the fact that in contrast to, say, Iraq, the Chinese factor is tangibly present there. For the time being, the U.S. apparently isn’t ready for a direct confrontation with China on this issue. It would be a conflict with 1.5 billion people, and Americans will think twice before risking military action in Korea.

That’s why the Americans are trying to get the Chinese to agree to “punish” North Korea with promises that afterward, U.S. troops won’t be permanently stationed north of the 38th parallel or that the whole thing will supposedly be limited to precision strikes on the relevant targets in North Korea. At the same time, the Americans are trying their hardest to sow estrangement and mistrust between the North Koreans and the Chinese.

China’s leadership, which is counting on the creation of favorable external conditions for its country’s further development, has demonstrated time and again that it is ready to actively exert influence on North Korea. China’s approval of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the nuclear tests and missile launches is a clear signal of Beijing’s displeasure with Pyongyang’s behavior.

Despite this, China, it would appear, will be forced to continue to keep North Korea afloat. At the same time, the Chinese will do their best to prod the North Koreans toward foreign policy restraint and economic reforms that would ease the political and economic burden upon China for its support of North Korea.

Unfortunately, Pyongyang’s latest actions have given the U.S. a new pretext for using nonproliferation problems to ram through its geopolitical plans in the region and withdraw from a negotiated resolution to the problem that takes into account not only North Korea’s security interests but those of neighboring states, something China insists upon. It seems the Korean peninsula is turning into one of the main knots of Sino-American contradictions and it might possibly become a proving ground for tests of strength between the U.S. and China.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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