April 27, 2018, 12:42 pm
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1 Philippine Peso = 1 Philippine Peso
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War of the dragons

The idea that China holds the key to solving the ongoing political and military crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been the standard jack-in-the-box of United States North Korea policy for the past seven decades. It is set to pop up whenever U.S.-North Korea tensions escalated and the threat of war thought imminent.

U.S. President Donald Trump and former Chief White House Strategist Stephen Bannon are only the latest to espouse the view that China has the power and influence to induce its “client state” to stop its saber-rattling and nuclear provocations. 

This view, according to an article summing up recent events in Asia in The Diplomat, is not just confined to U.S. policymakers, either. 

In fact, ever since Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River on October 1, 1950 and attacked U.S. and UN forces on North Korean soil, numerous U.S. policymakers have been looking to Beijing as the éminence grise of the Kim dynasty that can sway the latter’s behavior.

Indeed, despite substantial evidence that the incumbent North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has a strained relationship with his big neighbor and has been openly antagonizing the communist leadership in Beijing as well as deliberately curtailing Chinese influence in his country, the “client state” narrative continues to hold sway.

In particular, the negative influence and legacy of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War on North Korean perceptions of China has been neglected. China attacking a close ally in 1979 — one which it had supported since the first Indo-China War in the early 1950s — underlined the perception that Beijing, despite Chinese intervention in the Korean War and the signing of the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Friendship Treaty, is ultimately not to be trusted.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong saw Korea as a focal point of larger tensions between the East and West. Because of continuing U.S. support of Chiang Kai-Sheik in Taiwan, Mao saw China in a de-facto war with the United States by 1950. 

Mao in particular saw mountainous North Korea as the battlefield where the People’s Liberation Army could bring its distinct relative advantage – superior numbers – to bear against the Americans and show the world that China was a great power to be reckoned with.

For Mao, Korea was first and foremost a pawn in a much larger great powers game. He cared little about the Kim regime per se. What the Chinese did in Korea entering the war, taking terrible casualties, but stalemating the Americans and the United Nations in the process — they did for their own reasons, not out of any great love for the North Koreans. Their respect for the Koreans and Kim at that moment was in fact quite marginal.

This would change very little throughout the rest of the Korean War and the 1950s. (I covered the conflict as a war news correspondent of the Philippines Herald.)

In the 1960s, relations between the DPRK and China declined further. Among other things, the Korean Workers Party (KWP) called the Cultural Revolution “great madness” and referred to Mao Zedong as “an old fool who has gone out of his mind.” China in turn accused North Korea of revisionist tendencies.

This set a pattern of disagreement for the coming decades, continuing in the post-Cold War period down to the present time.

While the Sino-Vietnamese War neither directly impacted North Korea militarily nor politically, it showed Pyongyang that the inherent asymmetry of Chinese relations with minor allies and China’s ruthlessness in pursuing its national interests.

For over two decades from 1950 to 1975, China had provided Vietnam with more than $20 billion in economic and military aid. It also dispatched political and military advisors to help support the war efforts against the French and then the Americans. 

However, Sino-Vietnamese relations quickly deteriorated in the middle of the 1970s following the end of the Vietnam War. Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation 

(COMECON) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1978, as China and the Soviet Union were locked in fierce competition over communist leadership in the Third World. 

China called the treaty “a military alliance and branded Vietnam the ‘Cuba of the East,’ pursuing hegemonistic ‘imperial dreams’ in Southeast Asia.” 

Beijing thought that Hanoi was ungrateful for Chinese aid and sacrifice during the wars in Vietnam. At the same time, China feared Soviet encirclement and it wanted to show Vietnam that its new ally, the Soviet Union, would be unwilling or unable to come to its aid during a military conflict.

On February 17, 1979, China launched its invasion, calling it a “self-defensive counterattack” against “the hooligans of Asia” and “running dogs of the Soviet Union,” as Chinese propaganda referred to the Vietnamese. For 30 days, the PLA fought the bloodiest battles since the Korean War.

By March 16, China had completely withdrawn all of its forces from Vietnamese territory after Beijing claimed it had achieved its war goals, which included the occupation of two Vietnamese cities. 

The Sino-Vietnamese War left a deep impression on China’s immediate neighbors in Asia and its major lesson must have been obvious for North Korea: China would not hesitate to abandon an ally or shrink from the use of force to advance its national interests.

China chose to go to war with a country it had supported economically, militarily, and politically for over two decades. North Korea’s leadership at first saw North Vietnam’s victory over the U.S. and the South as a strategic opportunity. 

To make matters worse, North Korea soon found out that unification does not guarantee Chinese non-interference and the right of an ostensible ally to an independent foreign policy.

***

Quote of the Day: “True to Lord Palmerson’s dictum, there are no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, but only perpetual interests!’
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