The Korean War Meets The South China Sea

The Korean War Meets The South China Sea


Our doughty editor at The Diplomat asks a good question: if China is confident of its “indisputablesovereignty” over the South China Sea, then what precisely is it offering to negotiate with ASEAN countries? The terms on which they conform to Chinese policy and law?

Negotiation presupposes give-and-take between two parties. But indisputable means indisputable. Sovereignty means mastery over territory. A sovereign government wields a near-monopoly on legitimate force within its territory, and it brooks few external constraints on its authority there. If the waters and land features within the nine-dashedline are China’s, and if there’s no give in China’s position, what’s left to bargain over?

‘Tis a mystery.

Turner Joy would probably chalk the dissonance up to communist negotiating tactics. Admiral Joy headed the UN delegation that dickered with North Korean and Chinese officers over an armistice terminating the Korean War. He titled his memoir of that ordeal HowCommunistsNegotiate. It’s an entertaining read, in large part because Joy writes so vividly that the reader can picture him forcibly restraining himself from choking his Chinese interlocutors. (Assaulting fellow negotiators is bad form.)

It’s an informative read as well. Joy makes a point that bears on today’s South China Sea controversy, namely that Chinese communists try to rig the game in their favor going in. That is, they set  agreeing to their bargaining positions as a condition for convening talks. If they can cajole adversaries into agreeing to China’s terms ahead of time, they will have painted the other side into a corner. Advantage: Beijing.

Today it’s the nine-dashed line; back then it was where to sketch the inter-Korean boundary on the map. The Chinese-led delegation at Kaesong (and later Panmunjom) insisted that the armistice line run along the 38th parallel, whereas the U.S.-led UN Command preferred a line that approximated that line of latitude but was militarily defensible for UN forces. Rugged natural defenses lie along the inter-Korean frontier but don’t coincide precisely with it. Geography has a way of refusing to cooperate with mapmakers. As a condition for opening negotiations, Beijing nonetheless demanded that the talks be about fixing the ceasefire line at the 38th parallel.

In short, it wanted to assume the conclusion. A nifty trick, if it works. These Korean War maneuvers presaged the rhetoric issuing from Beijing today. China again welcomes peaceful negotiation of its nonnegotiable policy. Fortunately, the other Southeast Asian claimants appear to see through this stratagem, much as Joy and his cohort did sixty years ago.

There’s a broader point here as well. Many of us, myself included, mine traditional Chinese culture for insights into Chinese political and strategic conduct. Learned writings from Confucius, Sun Tzu, and other luminaries of antiquity are staples of Western commentary on China. Beijing encourages this by opening Confucius Institutes, invoking the voyages of Zheng He, and otherwise trying to reconnect—selectively—to China’s dynastic heritage. Such inquiries are worth scholars’ while, and fascinating to boot.

But let’s not forget that the Chinese Communist Party spent decades breaking with that past. Heck, officialdom sought to destroy it during Mao Zedong’s lifetime, and to replace it with Marxist-Leninist dogma. That legacy remains part of Chinese culture. Beijing’s rhetoric hasn’t degenerated to TeamAmerica-levelparody, but sometimes you hear echoesofit. It should come as little shock when Chinese Communist Party officials act like…communists.

August 13, 2012 at 15:41

I see. PLA generals also like to joke about the sacrifice of their soldiers. I know that, every year, mothers are still mourning, widows are still burning incense sticks, in Yunan Martyr's Cemetery.  

Oro Invictus
August 13, 2012 at 15:09

My primary interest is less how the Korean War itself pertains to the SCS situation and moreso how we can use the lessons of the Korean War in resolving the SCS dispute. The Korean War showed us that the CPC is capable of, even in the face of a conflict globally considered a stalemate overall and a strategic victory for the US during its initial phases and a Pyrrhic victory/strategic loss for the PRC during its secondary phases, twisting domestic opinion to call such a war a “victory” for the PRC. This is of supreme importance as it is fear of domestic censure which is currently forcing the PRC government to continue its efforts to exercise jurisdiction in the SCS; while it may have initially been an opportunistic attempt to gain control of resources at first during the US’ recent “conciliatory” phase of foreign relations, they have now been locked into this path as turning back would ruin what little domestic credibility they have left (especially so if one of my earlier theories is correct, and they are using the SCS to distract the people of the PRC from domestic issues). If, however, it can be engineered that the PRC can achieve a tactical victory but a strategic loss/no net strategic gain in the SCS (just as was the case in Korea), we can offer the CPC the chance to pull back from its current claims while giving them a way to preserve domestic credibility (using propaganda to paint their short-term victory as achievement of their long-term goals while leaving the SCS free from their control).

August 13, 2012 at 04:06

@Errol T.
What you are saying is what the Chinese said to the British 150 years ago.  To the civilized Christian British. The British with the rule of law.  Please read Bertrand Russell's "Problem of China".  The answer to your query was answered in this book published in 1922.  
I sometimes wonder why educated Westerners, specially academics, ask questins about China when the answer was given in 1922.

August 13, 2012 at 03:52

@Errol T
Hong Kong was war booty.  UK profited handsomely specially when she forced the HK colonial government to put all its financial reserves in British Pound knowing full well that the British Pound was to be devalued.  Hong Kong was built on the China trade and has been successful because of it.  The UK profited handsomely to the very last day.  It was very easy money.  Was it surprising that Jardine (the company which started opium trading) moved its headquarters out of Hong Kong before the handover?  
When Hong Kong was captured, only the shp's captain and his orderlies were there to dictate terms.  When Hong Kong was handed back, the whole UK cabinet was there to witness.  The rise and fall of the British Empire against the fall and rise of the Chinese people. China is a marathon runner.  What will tomorrow bring?

August 13, 2012 at 03:35

The dragon can blow hot and cold.  Don't annoy the dragon. Of course, in happier days, it is Puff, the Magic Dragon, lives by the sea.

August 13, 2012 at 03:32

@ErroL T
The Chinese government action is a bureaucratic move, that is, allocating resources to the right people in the right location.  Weeks prior to this, in a TV talk show which I watched, there were suggestions that China must counter the moves to the Philippines setting up a school in one of the "Chinese" islands.  Government action follows the clamor of the people.  Very standard practice in public relations. The last thing Beijing wants to do is to set up a garrison.  Well, events are now unfolding in ways that were not expected yesterday.

August 13, 2012 at 03:11

An old joke from the days of the Sino-Soviet border clash.  
Russian General:  We lost 10,000.  The Chinese lost 30,000
Chinese General:  We are winning, we only lost 30,000.  We got the Russians on the run.  At this rate, the Russians will be wiped out.

August 13, 2012 at 03:03

China was forced to enter the Korean War.  She barely just announced the formation of a People's Republic on the backbone of a peasant army.  Lin Piao turned down the Korean command because he thought it was extremely difficult against superior odds; it fell on Peng Deh-Huai to run the war.  He had only two major elements: massive manpower and total surprise.  MacArthur never expected China to enter the war; that really caused the chaotic retreat (or advance to the rear) from the Yalu River to the 38th parallel.  
We can have an oxymoronic lesson:  Should a US general expect the unexpected when doing his war plans?

August 13, 2012 at 02:40

@Errol T
Conclusion:  It is thus easier to negotiate while dogs are barking instead of biting.

August 13, 2012 at 02:22

Dreams are dreams.  When dreams are realized, you have fulfillment.  But, reality is all about power.

August 13, 2012 at 02:08

@ Vic
the official reason for the PRC's entrance into the Korean conflict, an entrance which began in October of 1950, was that US bombers had somehow crossed PRC territory while bombing North Korea, which was an utter lie. Above all, Mao wanted a new vassal state, it would seem, especially considering that–for all intents and purposes–the PRC is a much modernized Chinese Empire in goals, notions of humiliation, and arrogance.
so how do you think the Korean conflict relates to the SCS? Do you believe that the PRC is forcing others to the negotiating table on a prestated goal, or is this potentially the start of something potentially far larger, with far nastier consequences for the international community?

August 12, 2012 at 23:34

This posturing from the CCP is simply a faceade to instal nationalistic sentiment to bolsters its weakening grip on its people. Its simply a distraction. A scared dog always knashes its teeth. the reality is it could not afford any real confrontation in the SCS, it would be pressed to hold the Japanese Navy at bay let alone a US/Nato backed Asia.

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