A recent research report on the growing economic integration between China and North Korea by the minority staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has attracted a bit of media attention. Like most other government documents,this report—titled, “China’s Impact on Korean Peninsula Unification and Questions for the Senate”— languished in obscurity until The Washington Post wrote a story about it last week. The argument of the brief report is simple: China’s extensive growing economic interests in North Korea are effectively turning the Hermit Kingdom into a 21st-century “tributary province.” Consequently, Beijing will have both the incentive and capacity to block the future reunification of the two Koreas.
While such an argument may grab headlines in a leading American newspaper, it falls apart under analytical scrutiny. The report not only misunderstands the fundamental Chinese rationale for maintaining a divided Korean peninsula, but also misses the three more likely scenarios that will make it almost impossible for China to stand in the way of Korean reunification.
Economic interests may be critical for individual Chinese companies or private entrepreneurs but they are at best secondary considerations for the Chinese government in formulating Korea policy. The net economic return for Beijing from its Korea policy is almost certainly negative. Over the past two decades, China must have pumped tens of billions of dollars of aid into North Korea to prop up a bankrupt regime, and has got little to show for it economically. Anyone who knows a thing or two about the rationale behind Beijing’s support for Pyongyang understands that it is Chinese national security that is driving policy. To put it simply, the Chinese government views North Korea as a valuable security buffer against American forward deployment in East Asia and is willing to bear the enormous economic burden to sustain this buffer.
However, even though the survival of the Kim family dynasty is viewed as vital to China’s national security and China’s current policy is an obstacle to Korean reunification, it would be an exaggeration to conclude that China has the ability to block the two Koreas from becoming one country.
There are three potential scenarios under which China will not be able to exercise a veto over the reunification of the divided Korean peninsula.
The first one is the repeat of a “Burma Scenario” North Korea-style. It is well known that North Koreans are fiercely nationalist and resent becoming a “tributary province” of China. Just as China’s controversial commercial behavior in Burma alienated Burmese elites and the public alike, and was an important trigger of Burma’s political opening, the ongoing economic integration of China and North Korea, as described in the Senate minority report, could also drive Pyongyang away from Beijing. The Kim dynasty could easily sell out its Chinese patron and turn to the West in the same way the Burmese military regime has done. Of course, given the blood on its hand, the North Korean regime will have a harder time getting the West to embrace it. But North Korea also has more attractive bargaining chips, its nuclear arsenal and missiles, with which it can extract favorable terms in negotiations.
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.