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China Needs to “Move Out of History” Regarding the DPRK

Mar 25 , 2016
  • Niu Jun

    Professor, Peking University

The deterioration of China’s security environment in recent years is directly associated with the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Since the DPRK declared its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talk in April 2009, the peninsula has been rather eventful, with an extremely tense situation at times. Deeply involved in the peninsula due to geographical proximity and the Korean War decades ago, China has to oftentimes make rather difficult choices in rather complex and diametrically conflicting situations.

This article addresses historical experience-based reviews. The so-called historical experience refers to the deep mark left on Chinese geopolitical thinking by the ‘big change unseen in three thousand years’ that China has encountered in modern times. It led to a popular Chinese belief that the Korean Peninsula is a ‘strategic security shield’ for China. The ‘shield’ shrank to North Korea due to the peninsula’s division as a result of the Cold War.

China is a nation with rich geostrategic thought. Since ancient times, the Chinese had defined the world it saw as ‘land under heaven’ and seen this land under heaven from the center, hence the saying ‘the emperor’s defense is against barbarians’. The aggression and expansion of Western powers in modern times led to significant changes in China’s geo-security environment, which was then described by Chinese as ‘strong powers surrounding China and looking for opportunities like tigers and eagles menacing their prey’. It reflected a fundamental change in the Chinese perception of its surrounding environment, caused by an increasing sense of insecurity. The surrounding areas turned from vassals to security buffers or shields between China and more distant powers.

In 1881, Zhou Derun, a member of Hanlinyuan, the Imperial Academy, wrote to Emperor Guangxu a memorandum. ‘The emperor’s defense is against barbarians. This is indeed a thoughtful and profound strategy. … Our dynasty has a vast land with many vassal states. Ryukyu guards our southeast, Koryo our northeast, Mongolia our northwest and Vietnam our southwest.’ This was the mainstream geostrategic view of Chinese then. For Chinese, controlling the surrounding areas is a basic objective of the Chinese security strategy and a basic mission of its diplomacy. Many later Chinese statesmen, including Dr. Sun Yat-sen, thought about the Korean Peninsula in this light. Mao Zedong was also deeply influenced this way in his youth.

The Korean War lifted the DPRK’s geostrategic value to a new high. Through extensive research after the end of the Cold War, historians found that the reasons behind Mao’s decision to ‘resist US aggression and aid Korea’ had been extremely complicated. It had a lot to do with the USA-USSR Cold War and China’s alliance with the USSR and the fact that DPRK was considered ‘the Socialist outpost in the East’. Nonetheless, in the massive political mobilization for war, the most persuasive argument remained ‘the teeth are cold when the lips are lost’. The war to ‘resist US aggression and aid Korea’ gained popular support because it was fought to ‘protect our homes and defend our country’, a simple and clear revelation of the geopolitical concern at the bottom of Chinese hearts.

Modern history and the Korean War left a lasting strategic memory, which remains alive among many Chinese today and still dominates their thinking. Now the question is how to evaluate the practical value of historical memories as the world and China both change. The end of the Cold War outside of China and the reform and opening-up inside China have fundamentally changed the country’s relations with the world.

Almost all powerful enemies of the past have now turned into strategic partners, cooperative partners and partners for peace. Even the US, with which a war was fought on the Korean Peninsula, entered into quasi alliance with China against USSR over 40 years ago and established diplomatic ties with China over 30 years ago. More recently, the two countries have become strategic stakeholders, with leaders on both sides vowing to create a new model of major-power relations with no conflict or confrontation — although they don’t deny there are also areas of conflict between the two countries.

Look at the reality around China. The situation has already turned from ‘strong powers surrounding’ to ‘weak neighbors around’ China. When territorial disputes are with neighbors, no one will be China’s ‘shield’ and some are virtually sources of trouble. With the national liberation movement after World War II, no neighboring country, including the DPRK, would want to shield any other country. It’s more likely that neighbors could interpret with disgust the shield theory as a reflection of China’s ‘middle kingdom’ mentality.

Judging from what has happened in recent years, is DPRK still a shield for China? Absolutely not. On the contrary, China has served as a ‘shield’ for DPRK’s adventures, which led to a worsened security environment for China. DPRK decision-makers even take such a game against China for granted, with no sense of gratitude since they see everything done out of self-interest by both countries. This perception not only is the profound root cause of problems in bilateral relations, but also causes other neighbors misgivings with regard to China’s strategic intentions as their views are admittedly linked to China’s DPRK policy.

Historical experiences make men wise. They also make men conservative. It is critical to recognize the limitations in time and space of every piece of specific historical experience. The Chinese policy towards the DPRK was not made purely out of geopolitical considerations. It has developed into its shape today due to many different factors. However, by ‘moving out of history’ and reviewing the limitations of traditional geostrategic thinking, at least we might be able to reduce obstacles to policy readjustment.

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