Chinese Strategic Thinking Regarding North Korea

In 2013, China is faced with the challenge of weighing the alternative goals of a favorable balance of power in Northeast Asia, a process of reunification on the Korean Peninsula that pays suitable attention to China’s national interests, and denuclearization. Of these, the oldest concern is the region’s balance of power, which is best seen through a brief overview of how it had changed since the nineteenth century. It is again in the midst of rapid transformation, resulting in close consideration of how China can have an impact.

The Korean Peninsula occupies a central position in China’s strategic considerations, in keeping with attitudes deeply rooted in Chinese history. China dominated East Asia for more than two thousand years.As a regional hegemon, it carefully cultivated a complex tribute system, in which China’s security was protected as long as tributary states, such as Korea and Vietnam, served as buffer zones on its periphery. The first Opium War ended this hegemony. As Li Hongzhang acknowledged, China began to face strong enemies, on a scale not seen in three thousand years.1 As it clumsily adapted to the new situation, it fell victim to dramatic changes in the balance of power in Northeast Asia. Invasions by Western powers, coupled with massive internal turmoil, brought China down from its pedestal of supremacy in this region. Russia and Japan rose in a three-way grand game, leading to wars between China and Japan in 1894-1895 and Japan and Russia in 1904-1905.

In the wake of the Sino-Japanese War, the three-way rivalry gave way to competition between Japan and Russia, and a decade later Japan’s victory forced Russia from the Korean Peninsula as well as Manchuria, leading to Japan’s dominance for the next four decades. This unipolar regional system unraveled rapidly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the war together with China and into a proactive foreign policy following the war. With Japan’s complete transformation from a militarist nation to a constitutionally-based peaceful one, it no longer posed a security threat to China or its neighbors. In the absence of unipolarity, the Korean Peninsula became a test of the balance of power again. After the establishment of the PRC, China was no longer on the sidelines, as the Soviet Union and the United States championed the DPRK and the ROK respectively, leaving Japan as the base from which US forces reached Korea.

Many Chinese look to their country’s experience for lessons on how a changing balance of power is intrinsically related to the vicissitudes of China’s history. First, they observe that balance of power was an alien concept, which Chinese were ill prepared to embrace. As its hegemony in East Asia was ending, it failed to balance rising powers. In 1896 in an effort to cope with Japan’s rise, following its wartime success, China joined Russia in a secret alliance, but Russia proved untrustworthy. Remaining neutral when Russia and Japan went to war, China was helpless at the end. In the wake of the September 18, 1931 Japanese invasion in Northeast China, China was alone, although it desperately sought outside help. These memories drive home the importance of a balance of power strategy. This especially applies to the Korean Peninsula, which was a pawn in past competition.

Second, China has become acutely sensitive to rising powers on its periphery. This dates well back, when its hegemony and even its territorial integrity made a convenient target for emerging frontier powers in Inner Asia. The experiences with Russia and Japan from the second half of the nineteenth century, ruthlessly encroaching on China’s territory along with Western powers, reinforced this concern. Russia adroitly used a combination of coercion, deception, and military acquisitions, where Japan single-mindedly resorted to military conquest. China became intensely sensitive to changes in the balance of power in East Asia, which carried over in the 1950s to the Korean War and continued over the following decades to the standoff between the rival governments on the peninsula.

Third, Chinese became sensitive also to the role of intervention from beyond East Asia in reconstructing the balance of power there. Great Britain and France helped to break up the tribute system. The Anglo-Japanese alliance supported Japan’s victory against Russia. Soviet assistance in China’s war with Japan lent China a helping hand when total collapse was possible, at the same time that US entry into the war alongside China helped to overwhelm Japan. In 1945, a divided Korean Peninsula became the centerpiece in the new struggle over the balance of power in the region. Chinese recalled that both it and the area known as Indochina, former security buffers of China, were the first places where the power balance had changed and that when tributary states there fell victim to colonizers China’s homeland security became increasingly vulnerable.

With these historical lessons in mind, China views the emerging situation on the Korean Peninsula in the following ways: 1) China’s rise fundamentally reshapes the power structure around the peninsula, affecting, above all, the position and political will of the United States; 2) in the new power structure China and Japan are locked into a heated rivalry for regional leadership and influence on the peninsula, heightened by China’s sense of grievance and Japan’s frustrated leadership ambitions; 3) the United States, accustomed to being the mastermind of the security architecture in the region, is poised to act as an offshore balancer, leaning toward Japan in its competition with China and viewing the Korean Peninsula as essential to this struggle; and 4) two competing blocs, one led by China and Russia, and the other by the United States and Japan, appear to be on the horizon, with implications for the strategies of these states toward North Korea.

The Korean Peninsula in China’s Calculus of the Emerging Balance of Power

A debate is under way in China on how the balance of power is changing in East Asia. In 2009-2010, many scholars argued that the balance was tilting in China’s favor, encouraging policies to take advantage of this trend. Recently, one finds many publications insisting that the balance is turning against China. This position is supported by arguments that the US “rebalance” is a more assertive strategy to limit China’s rise, that US strengthening of alliance and defense partner ties with countries opposing China over the South China Sea has poisoned China’s relations with some Southeast Asian nations, and that Japan is at fault for the tensions over the East China Sea and is abetted by US policies. Analysis of the Korean Peninsula proceeds against the background of these widespread assertions.

Looking back, China has reason to be concerned about the ROK-US alliance and recent efforts to widen its scope and strengthen it. Historically, the security of China and Korea has been interdependent; China offered protection when Korea faced an external threat, and Korea served as a buffer zone between China and potentially hostile powers. Suffering from frequent attacks and harassment from Japanese pirates, China had begun to see Japan as a direct threat to its security and also to appreciate Korea’s role, what the Ming dynasty called a “protective screen” (pingzhang),2 recognizing that the loss of Korea to Japan would open the door to further invasion. “When the lips are gone, the teeth will be exposed to the cold.” China drove Japan out of the Korean Peninsula in the 1590s, but it failed to protect its sphere of influence in the 1890s, disastrously losing its last critical buffer zone, and also losing its capacity to compete with Japan and Russia in the region, as its loss exposed its vulnerability and China’s homeland bore the brunt of subsequent Japanese aggression. The Korean War posed a similar dilemma. As US forces crossed the 38th parallel and approached China’s border, China decided to intervene for two basic reasons: 1) the United States, which had sided with the nationalist government and had recently been driven out of the Chinese mainland, was the head of the Western camp and the number one enemy with the capability and political will to topple the regime; so it could not tolerate the presence of such hostile forces in its vital buffer zone; and 2) viewing history as a mirror, China saw the United States through the lens of what Japan had done on the Korean Peninsula, fearing a repeat performance. It secured the survival of North Korea, with which it shared an ideology and membership in the communist camp. Chinese strategic thinking is heavily influenced by its history.

History may be losing some of its salience as China gains in confidence, finds that as the second largest economy in the world it can be more aggressive, and no longer is afraid of being invaded by any country. The strategic value of the peninsula has been declining, but the peninsula still poses a number of challenges to China. First, the balance of power is changing in favor of South Korea, as the economic gap between North and South keeps widening and South Korea is enjoying enlarged diplomatic space, where North Korea is suffering unprecedented isolation in the international community, subject to sanctions by the UN Security Council. This fuels speculation that South Korea will win in the drawn-out competition with its northern counterpart and achieve national unification on its own terms. Second, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons as a way to redress the unfavorable change in the balance of power also has a disruptive effect, causing deep concern among China’s elites. Already having conventional forces that could hold Seoul hostage, the North’s nuclear capacity can serve many purposes: to boost morale and the authority of the leadership, thereby increasing social cohesion; to deter any invasion from a hostile power(s); to allow downsizing of conventional forces, cutting the heavy burden of military expenses; and to extract more concessions form negotiating partners in future talks on denuclearization or stabilization. Thus, its nuclear weapons program strengthens Pyongyang’s position in the competition with Seoul. While this may prolong the division of the peninsula and whet the appetites of South Korea and Japan for nuclear weapons, its effect on the balance of power counters the changes noted above that favor South Korea. This is relevant for China’s calculus about how to shift the balance of power in the region in a direction favorable to its long-term preferences in a rapidly evolving environment.

China’s Goals for Reunification and the Process Leading toward that Objective

China has faced a divided Korean Peninsula before. Three kingdoms once were entangled in fierce competition for supremacy, inviting external interference from China and Japan, which fought each other on the peninsula for their respective clients. After the establishment in 918 by Wang Kon of the Koryo dynasty, Korea was united in 936, steadily expanding its territory to the Yalu River. Despite invasions from time to time by China and Japan, the Korean state remained united. After Japan’s brutal colonial rule, the end of the Second World War saw the United States and the Soviet Union rush to fill the power vacuum, arbitrarily dividing the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel. As the Cold War unfolded, with support from the two superpowers, two competing Korean states were established. War on the peninsula hardened this division. The root causes of the Korean War are in dispute, but one of the key motivations was the ambition of each side to unify the peninsula on its own terms.

Although the war hardened the geopolitical divide on the peninsula, both Koreas did not cease their pursuit of national unification. In the past sixty years, they have been pitted against each other in a drawn-out military confrontation and political competition, but they have shared a common aspiration for ultimately achieving national unification. Some generalizations apply to their interactions in this regard: 1) in the first three decades North Korea was on the offensive, proposing a series of unification proposals, but in the last three decades South Korea gained the initiative; 2) the idea of achieving unification through peaceful means has been embraced by the ruling classes in both Koreas, although from 1965, encouraged by Vietnam’s war of unification, Kim Il-sung entertained for a time the idea of launching a military campaign to achieve this goal; 3) the principal dilemma is that the two sides want to realize unification on their own terms, failing to find middle ground; 4) under the shadow of the Cold War, the major powers, whose motives may not correspond to those of either side, interfered in interactions aimed at unification; 5) the unification initiatives from both sides became entangled in other contentious issues, ending in a deadlock; and 6) once North Korea’s nuclear weapons program took center stage, the unification issue took a back seat, as denuclearization became a critical precondition for its realization. What the above list demonstrates is that Chinese analysis apportions blame rather equally, faults Seoul for not finding a “middle ground” enticing to Pyongyang, and attaches importance to Seoul distancing itself from Washington and setting aside issues that are deemed contentious to break the deadlock.

Chinese analysts see the on-and-off interactions between the two Koreas entering a new stage. North Korea now faces extraordinary difficulties: the sudden succession of an inexperienced, untested young man in a country where the top leader’s personality and ability are critical to the survival of the Kim dynasty; the new toll on the economy from the Security Council sanctions, as the people’s hardship is still not alleviated; and even greater diplomatic isolation due to international reactions to recent satellite launches and a nuclear test. Relations with Seoul and Washington remain hostile, while those with Beijing ran into trouble. Clearly, Chinese strategic thinking has responded to events in 2012-2013 by putting more blame on North Korea, and this may be having an effect, given some adjustments in the North’s policies over the past summer.

The precarious situation of North Korea inevitably fuels speculation that the regime may collapse before long. Chinese analysts see no such prospects. Although Kim Jong-un faces significant challenges, he has consolidated his power base, including gaining firm control over the military. As long as he keeps this grip on the military, these analysts expect the economic and political situation to remain relatively stable in the foreseeable future. The drive toward unification cannot be stopped, as Koreans on both sides share this goal, but regime collapse does not provide the answer. Reviewing different models of national unification, we can get a clearer idea of Chinese strategic thinking at work.

The Vietnam model of military unification: In comparison to South Vietnam, established and shored up by outside powers, North Vietnam found its strength in popular support, long-time military experience, and unwavering political determination. It always kept on the offensive in promoting national unification, playing the peace card from time to time but never succumbing to the illusion that this would bring unification. Assistance from China and other communist countries played a critical role in driving out France and then the United States, whose withdrawal offered Hanoi the chance to reach its goal. It is no surprise if some are asking whether there is some prospect that this scenario will apply.

The Yemen model of integration: Yemen’s division is attributed to internal struggle, colonial legacy, and external interference. It unification demonstrates: 1) even though the North was stronger in population and economically, both sides had small populations and were prone to outside influences; 2) not only the two superpowers, but regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, played a big role; 3) recognizing their vulnerability to power politics, the two Yemens demonstrated a strong desire for national unity, in 1992 agreeing to achieve this within a year; 4) strong leadership in ending the civil war in 1994 and the termination of outside support to South Yemen due to the collapse of communist regimes, made unification possible. Few expect this model to be applicable to Korea.

The German Model of absorption: The sudden reunification of Germany demonstrated a number of features: 1) the power of East and West was asymmetrical, the West being much bigger and richer, allowing it to take the helm in the unification process; 2) its superior resources allowed West Germany peacefully to absorb East Germany offering generous material benefits; 3) even more important were deep-seated aspirations for reunification; 4) East Germany’s internal crisis and Soviet changes, loosening its grip on the East, gave the West its opportunity; 5) leadership by Helmut Kohl and others played a critical role in facilitating this process; 6) the four powers, the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France were highly restrained in this process; and 7) the two sides moved swiftly, minimizing external interference. While the huge wealth gap would favor South Korea taking the lead, as West Germany had done, few in China expect this model to apply. Given the North’s military power, conventional and nuclear, it is difficult for South Korea to follow the German model of absorbing it. Even if a sudden change in leadership could lead to large-scale chaos, jolting into motion a unification process, more violence and more involvement of outside powers are anticipated.

China is not in a position to define the circumstances of unification. As a neighbor, it has a keen interest in stability and peace on the peninsula. It is also a divided nation and has shown its own way of dealing with this with a patient, three-stage strategy, promoting economic integration in the first stage, political consultations for the second stage, and one nation, two systems as the approach to the third stage. China’s strategy is similar for Korea, a step-by-step, gradual unification that is less disruptive, costly, or unpredictable.

How Negotiations over North Korea Will Shape the Balance of Power

The end of the Cold War caused significant change in the power structure of Northeast Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its disintegration into 15 independent states, China and Russia shook hands and set in motion their rapprochement. Already the Sino-US entente had come to a sudden end, as Washington rallied Western nations to impose sanctions against China and the two states disputed human rights, trade, and the Taiwan issue. While in the new millennium, the United States was preoccupied with the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, the simmering rivalry between China and Japan grew increasingly evident, symbolized by historical issues and associated grievances as China’s rise and Japan’s pursuit of normal statehood aggravated the tensions. Recently, disputes over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands have militarized the rivalry. With the US rebalancing strategy, the Sino-US rivalry in this region revived, spilling into a chain reaction. Although the Sino-Japanese competition is more narrowly focused on the regional level, the two rivalries are converging in Northeast Asia for two reasons: the United States and Japan are traditional allies, and both are facing China as competitors; and in order to confront this collaboration, symbolized by the islands dispute, China is strengthening its relations with Russia, which also is at odds with the two states, to the point that a de facto Sino-Russian alliance looms with increased mutual domestic support and institutionalized military cooperation. Despite growing economic interdependence of China and Russia on one side, and the United States and Japan on the other, political and security trust have been declining. Two competing political-security blocs are on the horizon, repeating the basic power structure witnessed when the inter-Korean rivalry arose and could again be the source of regional instability with ramifications for the policies toward the Koreas.

China could reap a number of benefits from the division on the peninsula. Both Koreas would seek China’s support, allowing it to enjoy considerable room to maneuver. North Korea could serve as China’s buffer zone, even though its geopolitical value declines as China grows stronger and more confident. Finally, North Korea could serve as China’s counterweight against the US strategy of rebalancing, even if it may not want to, since its missile launches, nuclear tests, and attendant provocations can consume US resources, diplomatic and military, alleviating pressure on China. This kind of strategic thinking is predicated on prioritizing questions about the balance of power in responding to issues related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and negotiations to curtail it.

Chinese elites know that the split on the Korean Peninsula is unsustainable. The issue of unification is not about “if,” but about “when” and “how.” For China, the desired path to unification is gradual and peaceful, in order to secure its national interests. With this in mind, China welcomes the convening of international conferences to address a number of issues: border arrangements, international obligations, nuclear weapons, reconstruction in the aftermath of reunification, neutrality and the end of the US military alliance, and how to secure Chinese properties and businesses on the Korean Peninsula. In the process, this unified Korea should agree to be nuclear free, dismantling all nuclear weapons and other nuclear facilities under the supervision of the IAEA. China’s strategic goals do not call for perpetuation of the divided peninsula, but its transformation into a neutral country.

In the short run, Chinese are not prepared to embrace a unified Korea, since the above conditions would not be met. The balance of power on the peninsula has tilted toward South Korea, and a drive to unification led by it would not satisfy these conditions. It also would be troubled by two missing elements: outstanding leadership, and the appropriate historical balance of external support. As for leadership, it is not clear that Park Geun-hye is the badly needed, outstanding leader with the political will to promote a unification agenda that would rally both domestic and international support and to seize any chance to get the job. What is meant by the appropriate historical balance of external support is circumstances that would suffice to meet China’s strategic imperatives. One would be Sino-US relations that have been put on solid footing, leading to a Sino-US condominium and to North Korea ceasing to function as a counterweight. The other would be the North going too far, causing harm to China’s core national interests unless policy towards it changed. In the absence of either of these extreme possibilities, for the foreseeable future it is unlikely that China’s policy toward North Korea will undergo significant change. As a result, China would continue to be North Korea’s principal source of assistance, the likelihood that North Korea can weather all sorts of hardships will grow, and the rivalry between the two Koreas will drag on. So far, there is no evidence that Chinese decision-makers have any other notion of the delicate relationship between the balance of power on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia. They probably believe that keeping the status quo on the peninsula is bearable and preferable to the uncertainties of unification at this time.

Alternative Views and Their Influence in 2013

Among the factors that could determine how the balance of power in Northeast Asia will change, inter-Korean interactions are a wild card with potential to make a difference. The balance of power is still fluid, subject to change in the near future. Mainstream thinking in China about the Korean Peninsula consists of a number of interconnected elements. If some of these are questioned, then different judgments about the balance of power could be drawn. Yet, alternative thinking so far is not leading to wavering in mainstream views:

• The division of the Korean Peninsula is a historical product and history will witness the accomplishment of ultimate unification on the peninsula.
• The masters of the future destiny of the peninsula are the Korean people; outside powers’ interference, no matter what the motive, cannot stop unification.
• For China, which also faces national division, it is immoral to stand in the way of eventual unification of the peninsula; at the same time, it is strategically unwise for China to take a hands-off policy toward Korean affairs.
• Even though North Korea causes troubles that undermine China’s interests or puts China in a difficult diplomatic situation, Beijing has no strong reasons to cut off its traditional relations with Pyongyang.
• The old appeasement policy toward North Korea seemingly did not work. North Korea did as it pleased in launching satellites and conducting nuclear tests, China has added sticks to its diplomatic toolbox, using them to make North Korea feel some pain.
• Coupled with its long-range missile technology, North Korea’s nuclear weapons have the potential to alter the nuclear balance in this region. Japan and South Korea may follow suit. In order to stop nuclear proliferation in this region, China formulated its “Three Insistence” policy, in which the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is on top.
• As long as Sino-US relations remain uncertain and South Korea sticks to what are regarded as its post-unification arrangements, China is not in a hurry to push for unification on the peninsula, even though unification will effectively eliminate a source of friction.

Mainstream thinking does not go without any challenge. On the mainstream view that a divided Korean Peninsula serves China’s interest best, Jin Jingyi and Jin Qiangyi insist that unification should be China’s preference on the grounds that this could eliminate a source of instability in Northeast Asia and reconstruct this region’s political structure.3 They believe that unification would deprive the United States of its right to station military forces on the peninsula and in Japan, reducing the US regional influence, and promoting China Northeast Asia strategy, which emphasizes cooperation instead of confrontation. In contrast to the silence of mainstream thinkers on who should lead the unification process, one sometime hears comments by academics that South Korea should do so because it is prosperous and democratic, what one would conclude from previous unification cases.4 For Chu Shulong, North Korea is a failed state. As its people struggle to escape hunger, North Korea has no moral basis or economic means to lead the unification process, they argue. Also, contrary to mainstream opinion that China should maintain good relations with North Korea in order to gain more leverage over inter-Korean affairs, Deng Yuwen, then deputy-editor-in-chief of the Central Party School’s Study Times, wrote in Financial Times an article entitled, “China Should Abandon North Korea.”5

Deviating from the official line, these three writers strike a tone that may resonate with a growing number of Chinese: 1) cool-headed analysts, who have little faith in the survival of North Korea and suggest that China should bet on a winner rather than a loser to keep its favorable position; 2) pro-South Korean Chinese, who have been heavily influenced by its culture or reaped benefits from doing business with that country; and 3) critics of the Chinese Communist Party, whose anti-communism predisposes them to have a strong aversion to the North Korean regime and would love to see a reversal of current policy. In the foreseeable future there is no prospect of a change of regime in China that would give voice to this outlook, nor do the other extreme circumstances noted above that might lead to a sharp turn in Chinese policy toward North Korea have any realistic possibility. Strategic thinking in China supports current policy and is not tilting in a new direction.

1. Wang Dingan and Liang Qichao, Ze Huofan zhuan and Li Hongzhang zhuan (Chongqing: Chongqing chubanshe, 1998), 161.

2. Zhang Peiheng and Yu Suisheng, Ershisishi quanyi—Mingshi dishice (Shanghai: Dazhongguo chubanshe, 2004), 6681.

3. “‘Chaoxian Bandao de tongyi youli yu Zhongguo’ de jielun shi zenme dechude?”

4. Comments made at the international seminar titled, “60th Anniversary of the Korean Armistice: A Pursuit of a Peace Road,” July 24, 2013, Beijing.

5. Deng Yuwen, “China Should Abandon North Korea,” Financial Times, Feb. 27, 2013,