Opinion: a look at how China truly views potential war, as tensions rise over North Korea
Clues exist outside state media on Beijing’s perspective on war
It is a striking thing when war metaphors take a physical form. On April 14, a succession of beautiful days in the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture was broken by the arrival of immense dark clouds, heavy rain and flashes of lightning. The suddenly apocalyptic weather coincided with the arrival of rumours that the US military might engage in pre-emptive strikes on nearby North Korea.
As the rain lashed down outside his dusty shop, a bookseller in Yanji asked me if I thought April 15 would mark all-out war on the peninsula, and if that meant China would soon be dealing with a new cross-border government under South Korean control. I wanted to tell him that war on the Korean peninsula would result in utter carnage, but I thought it was better left unsaid, and quickly left for Shenyang.
The impact on China in any given conventional or nuclear Korean War scenario is typically dire. And in spite of the hours of talks supposedly dedicated to the issue between Chinese and US leaders and officials, there is very little information presented from these events that helps us to understand China’s options in such a nightmare scenario.
In dealing with North Korea, do Chinese strategists and thinkers see the United States and South Korea (along with Japan) as the main problem, and Pyongyang as an asset to manage? Or is Pyongyang the main culprit in stoking tensions again to the brink of war?
In assessing Chinese discourse on North Korea, we clearly need to go beyond statements and press briefings made at China’s foreign ministry and via Global Times editorials. The writings of security academics in China can provide a good barometer for the issue.
The relationship with North Korea is quite sensitive at the moment – something I found out for myself when a talk of mine on the Korean War was cancelled by my university hosts in Shanghai – but scholars who are allowed to make public pronouncements on the issue are therefore all the more interesting.
Retired PLA General Wang Haiyun provided North Korea very little comfort in an essay for the National Defence Times on March 27, in which he noted that China’s attempts to resolve the situation peacefully had not taken root, since, “no matter if it is the US and South Korea, or North Korea, which does not stop, the danger of a war breaking out is very great.”
Wang’s main concern was that China had to prepare quickly for a broader war in and around Korea, the preparation for which should include moving anti-chemical weapons units to the border region. Wang remains worried about nuclear waste or fallout from a US strike on a North Korean nuclear plant or test site into Chinese border areas, which would harm social stability and negatively effect China’s security environment.
Most surprisingly, Wang called for “creating international refugee camps inside of North Korea to prevent refugees from entering China.” Wang’s hawkish stance toward the United States is well known, but this kind of open ruminating about the potential meaninglessness of North Korean sovereignty feels new.
Less abrasive and tactically aggressive than Wang, Peking University historian and vice-director of the Centre for International Strategic Studies Niu Jun levelled more direct criticism at North Korea. In a recent interview with Southern Window magazine, Niu downplayed the allegedly destabilising influence of US President Donald Trump on Washington’s foreign policy toward the Korean peninsula. There is, after all, already bipartisan support in Congress for a strong US security posture in the Pacific, a fact again reinforced by Mike Pence’s visit to the region.
The placing of US nuclear bombers in Guam, preparation of special forces, and the levelling up of tactical military drills with South Korea are all methods used by prior US administrations.
Blame for the ongoing nuclear crisis is placed foremost on North Korea for pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty; Niu further notes that regime security (ie, the survival and ongoing supremacy of the Kim family foremost) has become more important than state security in North Korea. Like his fellow historian Shen Zhihua, Niu Jun seems to acknowledge the possibility that North Korea could become an enemy for China.
Both Niu and Shen remind us that any assertions in Chinese state media noting that North Korea should be satisfied with Beijing’s guarantees of security are wildly overoptimistic and unrealistic. For North Korea, no externally generated security guarantees will ever suffice and its nuclear programme will forge forward.
The war clouds may have momentarily subsided over Korea, as Pyongyang opted for parades rather than underground nuclear explosions on April 15. But sunlight is quickly obscured, and in pondering strategic options and levelling blame, the Chinese state will be drawing from a pool of opinion and analysis that increasingly shows signs of exasperation at Pyongyang.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds