China wants North Korea to freeze its missile program, which from Pyongyang’s perspective is the final step in completing its defense posture against attack by the U.S.
Beijing also wants the U.S. and South Korea to cease its annual joint exercises, which from Seoul’s and Washington’s perspectives are reasonable drills in preparation for another attack by the North.
Rational people can understand those opposing perspectives. However, what is not recognized is the reasoning behind China’s urging, and I do not refer merely to China’s wish to ratchet down the tensions that are bubbling to a dangerous level on the Korean Peninsula.
CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS
Start by noting that China is risking nothing in this. It is a reversal of the “Let’s you and him fight” saying. It is disingenuous, to say the least, for Beijing to offer this in its self-appointed role of Asian peace-maker, and the irony is not lost on those paying attention that it is the chief belligerent in the South China Sea making such a statement.
To be sure, China is concerned about losing the buffer between its northwest provinces and the pro-West South Korea. It cannot publically admit that, so Beijing hides behind seemingly straightforward statements, this time suggesting that North Korea freeze its missile program and that the U.S. and South Korea cease their joint drills in order to defuse a tense situation and thus preserve regional stability.
Of course, North Korea won’t do that. Perfecting a delivery system for its nukes is the key to locking up their security – and thus is non-negotiable. South Korea and the U.S., of course, will not stop their drills for two reasons: (a) both countries remember how the first Korean War started, and (b) there just might be the need for a pre-emptive invasion of the North in the future.
It is disingenuous, to say the least, for Beijing to offer this in its self-appointed role of Asian peace-maker
Admittedly, all this might change radically after the upcoming South Korean presidential elections on May 9th. For the time being, however, this is the current state of affairs.
Regardless, that which is superficially observable is merely a screen to conceal what China ultimately wants. Some Western observers may not view China seriously enough – a power in ancient times but with not much more than pride in its past as the Middle Kingdom. To be sure, Beijing is not the center of the Asian world, but China is working with great determination to restore its former glory days – and that makes them at least noteworthy, if not dangerous.
There is method behind what appears to be an irrational suggestion. In deducing what China’s true intent is, the West needs to first recognize that China is thinking in not years but decades – perhaps generations – into the future. Central planning governments tend to look much further ahead, while democracies all too often can barely see beyond any given political administration.
China’s ultimate goal is to be a hegemonic power in the Western Pacific – if not a larger sphere of influence. That intention is clear enough to those who fully grasp the meaning of Beijing’s open contention that the Pacific Ocean is large enough for both China and the U.S. For that to happen, however, some things have to change, one of which is the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN – YET
Short-term predictions made by Westerners with regard to Asia are notoriously few. Those that do exist are rarely accurate (an exception to this will be discussed in an upcoming essay). Nonetheless, the outcomes necessary to support such a goal can be identified even if they are not able to be fully defined in detail at present. If what follows seems wildly imaginative, think again about how poorly the West understands Asia. What is roughly sketched out below is indeed possible.
The starting point is to get tensions on the Korean Peninsula greatly reduced. Beijing’s effort toward that is to get the fear-inducing joint military exercises of Seoul and Washington to stop in exchange for Pyongyang to cease its ICBM and other missile programs. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon in view of existing conditions on the peninsula, however.
The upcoming presidential elections in South Korea portend a shift in political position to the left. Just how far remains to be seen, but there are indications that the American THAAD system may be rejected as Seoul takes a stance more independent of the U.S. Moreover, increased economic and political cooperation between the North and the South is likely.
China’s ultimate goal is to be a hegemonic power in the Western Pacific
To the degree that events foster more cordial relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, discussions regarding a peace treaty may reach a greater level of importance. The United States is against such a treaty, but in the face of pressure from Seoul, the current American administration may just decide to allow South Korea go down that risky path on its own. Next, of course, would be the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea.
While this is occurring, China would continue its efforts to corner South Korean markets, increasing Seoul’s economic reliance upon trade with Beijing. Chinese investments in the South would likely increase its political influence, and China could then begin pressure for reunification under peaceful means (likely without too much regard for Kim Jong Un, with whom China’s Xi has not even met once).
And as for North Korea, since 90% of its trade is with China, Pyongyang is already at the mercy of Beijing, although it refuses to see that. China could bring the North to its knees – if it so desired – by clamping down on trade with Pyongyang. However, if and when it were to do so, it would be for Beijing’s own reasons and not because of any international diplomatic effort or pressure.
Concerning Seoul, China would continue its efforts to drive wedges between South Korea and its current allies. It has pointedly built a memorial to Korean Ahn Jung Geun (who assassinated by the Japanese Resident-General of Korea in 1909 during Imperial Japan’s occupation of the peninsula) just to induce more anti-Japanese sentiment in the South. More recently, Beijing complains about the U.S. THAAD system, with the objective of disrupting the Seoul-Washington defense relationship.
A NON-MILITARY CONQUEST?
What would be in store for the entirety of Korea would be a softer version of the 1905 “agreement” with Imperial Japan – the Eulsa Treaty which placed all of Korea under Japanese “protection” as a prelude to being annexed outright five years later. Given Beijing’s irredentist views concerning much of the Korean Peninsula, China would likely see that as being a most appropriate rhyme of history.
The functional result could be a united Korean Peninsula as a vassal state of China, even if only economically, with Beijing then controlling the Korean land bridge to Asia proper as well as having freer access to the Western Pacific.
To be sure, it is impossible to calculate how or which of these steps would occur – or if they ever would.
This is intended only to illustrate a single series of potentials that could lead to Beijing achieving its desire of regional hegemony. Undoubtedly, there are other roads to that. The West needs to be aware of China’s ultimate goal and the various ways through which it might achieve it – and then be prepared for whatever might come to pass.
Regardless of how China works toward its goal, one thing ought to be clear: Beijing is not going to help solve the North Korea problem in the way the West and its allies want.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Forbidden City, Beijing by romanboed on 2017-03-10 06:51:51