James Holmes

The Korean War Meets The South China Sea

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James Holmes

The Korean War Meets The South China Sea

What the 38th parallel may have in common with the much discussed ‘nine-dashed line’.

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 ninedashedline 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 TeamAmericalevelparody, but sometimes you hear echoesofit. It should come as little shock when Chinese Communist Party officials act like…communists.