The second scenario is a democratic transition in China itself. This may not be a realistic possibility in the short-term (the next five years), but the probability of a democratic transition in China is non-trivial and is on the rise. The country has reached a level of socioeconomic development (about $U.S. 8,500 per capita in purchasing power parity) at which few non-oil producing autocracies can survive. Signs of political awakening, such as the recent anti-censorship protest, calls for democracy, and civic activism, have emerged in China. Endemic corruption inside the regime, loss of public credibility, and extreme income inequality have greatly undermined the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. The question of regime transition in China is a matter of when and how, not whether or not. Should such a political revolution occur, a new democratic regime in Beijing will most likely jettison Pyongyang and embrace a reunified democratic Korea.
Even in the event of a rapid collapse of the North Korean regime, triggered most likely by a military coup or a popular uprising (or a combination of both) against the Kim dynasty, China’s capacity to intervene militarily in order to prevent reunification is questionable. North Korea has nuclear weapons, a factor that is likely to deter China from sending the People’s Liberation Army across the Yalu River should the Kim dynasty be overthrown by an internal uprising.
For all its analytical flaws, the Senate minority report does raise a valuable question, not for the U.S. Senate, as its title suggests, but for the Chinese government. Beijing needs to review – and completely change – its Korea policy, which is based on erroneous and obsolete strategic assumptions that are driving away South Korea as a potential regional partner.
The fundamental strategic rationale for Beijing to maintain the status quo on the Korean peninsula is to deny the U.S. a possible overland invasion route for the Chinese mainland. In the age when China’s weakest strategic link is the combination of its dependence on imported energy and its lack of capabilities to protect its sea lines of communication, such a rationale is obviously erroneous. Those with the faintest knowledge of American strategic thinking understand that in the event of a military conflict with China (an unthinkable scenario for two nuclear-armed great powers) a land invasion is the last option the Pentagon would pursue.The American military will almost certainly deploy its far superior naval and air capabilities in such a conflict. North Korea will be of little use to China in such a scenario.
A Chinese government with a modicum of strategic foresight must thus fundamentally alter its Korea policy. Instead of obstructing Korean reunification, Beijing must embrace it and place its chips on the side of Seoul. Only such a policy will serve China’s long-term interests.