China is Feeling Its New Strength – and It will Structure Korean Unification

I have been to four conferences on East Asian (EA) security this year. All have had Chinese colleagues. This has been hugely helpful in my thinking on Asian security. In the US, I rarely met Chinese scholars. Studying Asia from a distance reduced it to a pool of cases to rummage through for evidence of this or that theory. Living here has given me a much greater sense of sharpness of the local disagreements, and especially of the punchy, rising strength of China.

David Kang has argued repeatedly that China’s rise is not spurring counter-balancing behavior in EA and that predictions that Europe’s past (nationalism, sharp territorial disputes, war) will be Asia’s future are overblown. I am certainly not the Asia expert he is, and in the US, I agreed with him. But after living here 15 months and going to these conferences and teaching Chinese (and Korean) students on these issues, I am really starting to think he is wrong.

Instead, I think this op-ed by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times really nails it. (Rachman is excellent. You should read him regularly.) I think he really catches how much more assertive the Chinese are becoming, including toward the US (which we deserve, of course, because we can’t get our house in order). I certainly see the ‘rising China’ vibe here when I listen to the Chinese scholars at the conferences. At the last one, three Chinese participants all stressed how the US was becoming dependent on China and that China was becoming “rich and strong.” I should say that the scholars I meet are usually polite and pleasant in personal conversation over a beer or dinner, but in the presentations, they talk with new found, newly enjoyable strength given US troubles and China’s continuing growth through even this Great Recession. In August I attended a panel entitled ‘China is Back!: East Asia after the Beijing Olympics.’ That sums up the vibe quite well.

After hearing this now for a year, I worked it into an argument about Korean foreign policy in Seoul two weeks ago (see my last 3 blog posts). The Chinese think they are on the up-and-up. They see the US in decline. And they are ready to push harder now for “our legitimate national security interests in Asia.” In the Korean case, I think this means the Chinese are going to become heavily involved in the structuring any final settlement on the Korean peninsula. When NK does finally explode/implode/collapse/whatever, it seems increasingly unlikely to me that SK alone will set the terms of unification. China is growing, and it seems natural that they do not want a democratic, nationalist, unified, American-allied Korea on their border. China already has Russia to the north, India to the south, Japan and the US to the east. It is reasonable therefore to expect them to prop up NK as long as possible (which is what they are doing), and when the inevitable unification does come, they will clearly push to formulate its terms to their liking as much as possible.

Instructive here is the German re-unification case. The USSR was falling apart, and the US was at a peak of postwar relative power. West Germany was a great power with a larger economy than the Soviet Union’s. This balance of forces clearly favored German unification on West German and US terms. In the end, unified Germany was kept in NATO. The USSR had wanted its neutralization, but it was too weak to get it, and West Germany basically bought Soviet compliance.

Little of this applies in Korea. China is rising, and the US is in real trouble. The USSR was dependent on western credit and oil sales; today, the US is dependent on Chinese credit (purchases of US debt). And South Korea does not have nearly the strength that West Germany has. So if China pushes for unified Korean neutralization, as the USSR pushed for it in Germany, the Chinese are lot more likely than the Soviets to get their way. I argued this publicly two weeks ago, and it was controversial enough that it landed in Korea’s foremost newspaper. But honestly, I am surprised. Doesn’t it seem obvious that big, rising, neighboring China would try to structure Korean unification to fit its preferences?

Anyway, Rachman is right. The Chinese are getting stronger, and they are starting to talk that way to the rest of us. They are feeling their oats and starting to throw their weight around. Of course, that will hardly stop the US suicide course of borrowing $20 billion a month from them. *Sigh* We’ve been warned.

19 thoughts on “China is Feeling Its New Strength – and It will Structure Korean Unification

  1. Meh. They’ve earned it. We’re squandering our resources, influence, and moral credibility. We don’t make anything anymore, and we’re increasingly outsourcing even our research and development centers. In my opinion, if you compare their level of assertiveness to what they’ve actually accomplished over the last 30 years, it’s just not that bothersome to me. It doesn’t seem excessive. I know the Chinese government uses nationalism to rally support for its policies and methods, suppress dissent, and so on – that’s dangerous. But none of it seems out of line. If Martians visit us next week and they read the recent histories of US and Chinese foreign policies, who will they conclude is more erratic, dangerous, and assertive?


    • I agree with you that we (the US) have blown our lead through our own silliness. We can’t pay our own bills. We are allergenically averse to either tax hikes or budget cuts. We are throwing away US fiscal stability away just as California has done with its budget.

      My feelings are more mixed than yours on Chinese nationalism. You and Kang and lots of others argue that China’s rise really is peaceful, but that is just not the long-term vibe I get here. They are feeling their oats, and when they are strong enough, they really will push for change. Why rock the boat now, when they are still behind but on the up and up? But in the future… That doesn’t mean war, but do expect a lot more Chinese pushiness in the next several decades than we have seen in centuries.


  2. Dr. Bob:

    Your take on Korean re-unification is really insightful. I have been thinking about it since I read it. Would South Koreans ever accept such an arrangement bound to curtail some of their freedoms or way of life?


  3. Your view on Korean re-unification seems a little simple to me. Not that I am an expert, but I have been living in Korea for six years, and reading the Korean Herald newspaper every day during this period. From this perspective, China’s unwillingness to discuss their plans for “explode/implode/collapse/whatever” in North Korea with the US, coupled with it’s recent assertions that ancient Goguyro is part of Chinese history point to a different outcome than a “unified Korean neutralization”.
    For me, the clues lead to China asserting that North Korea is actually part of ancient China, and using it’s military and financial clout to keep the US and South Korea, fearful of loosing their economic growth engine, out of North Korea. If China can cause doubt in the international arena as to the ancient sovereignty of North Korea using historical arguments, even if they are not accurate, a dispute is still a dispute, and truthful cries from South Korean scholars will not be enough to convince the international community to hand them North Korea because of historical reasons, which China now will always be able to say are in dispute.
    One question I have on a similar subject is: why does North Korea only want one-to-one talks with the US, it’s sworn enemy, and yet the US has refused direct talks since the Clinton administration. True this seems about to change, but to me it seems like the US has been happy to have a divided Korea up until now, and is not interested in making friends with them. Even the South Korean government feels that unification will be too expensive, and the talk of unification comes from people outside the political game and are as vague as cries for world peace.


    • I don’t think the PRC will push to absorb NK. That would be extremely difficult and openly violate China’s stated support for unification. The world would read it as colonization/imperialism; the international backlash would be crushing. South Koreans would absolutely howl and never let it go. Consider how hard absorbing Tibet has been on the PRC. Besides, NK is a basket case that no one is looking forward to cleaning up.

      The Chinese historical assertions about Koryo aim primarily to preemptively head-off unifed Korean irredentism in Manchuria. The Chinese know that NK will fall apart some day, and they are preparing the intellectual ground that a unified Korea stops at the Yalu river.

      NK wants direct talks with the US for three reasons. 1. The US is the only superpower, and pictures of Kim Jong Il and Obama will prop up the regime’s internal legitimacy and external prestige. 2. NK believes that talks with SK are pointless, because it is the US that runs the show. 3. A deal with the US is the only way to unlock Western aid that might help keep the regime afloat.


      • China is where America was in 1890, except not yet declared her own version of the Monroe Doctrine in 1840, so of course, China will be resolving historical anomalies such as US hegemony in her backyard with more fervor in the coming decades.

        That’s to be expect.

        America should do what China is doing right now, winning. It’s that simple. 😀


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