Geopolitics

China’s Great Game

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Sometimes history plays like a strange game. According to a once-respected voice of Karl Marx, history can only repeat itself as a farce. I wrote this piece because of that very possibility: that the sheer oblivion of history might create, rather than reasoned evolution, conditions for terror.

In my piece from two weeks ago, I wrote that the surprise meeting between the two Koreas was a deception. I was not able to indicate who, in that bizarre game, was making the moves, and who was being played. As the result of that meeting, though, North and South Korea have agreed to participate in the Winter Olympics under a single Korean flag. In other words, North and South Koreans will march together at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang under a “unification flag” depicting the whole peninsula. So the horrific and the most dangerous border in the world, the Demilitarized Zone, will be symbolically obscured and the flag of United Korea will be raised up; the 38th parallel will be open after 70 years.

But that flag, with South and the North marching together under it, will create a shock wave through the region, however surreal. It will be an early rehearsal of the unification that is bound to happen one day, though not now, nor anytime soon. Currently, there are no conditions for this process to happen as the causes that divided the Korean peninsula and created two diametrically opposite worlds on each side of 38th parallel have not been surmounted. Consequently, the march under a united Korean flag cannot be anything more than symbolic until the great game among its regional powers comes to a conclusion.

There are many obstacles to be removed before, for instance, China will concede the unification of the two Koreas. Remember the reunification of Germany, almost thirty years ago? Germany, too, was separated after WWII and Bonn, the capital of Western Germany at the time, started to push for the reunification of the country in the late 80’s. Bonn had economic, geopolitical and security reasons to initiate the geopolitical game. While Bonn first needed a green light from the West–the victors of WWII–it also required a nod from Moscow. At that time, the already crumbling Soviet Empire tried to reposition itself with perestroika, a package of political reform, while the pieces of the Democratic Republic of Germany, at the fringes of the communist empire, were chronically cracked. The flux of refugees from the East made the merge of two Germanys the only possible solution, plausible only because Bonn was capable and willing to sustain the cost of the operation.

There is no physical wall between two Koreas, but the border zone between North and South is one huge minefield, maintaining an arsenal of arms far more substantial than that at the Berlin Wall. Like East Germany, North Korea is an extremely oppressive regime but, because of its nuclear defense strategy, Pyongyang enjoys a higher degree of independence; without any real patron, it is considered a rough state. And while the regime in Pyongyang has firm control over its population and strongly-secured borders, South Korea has no immediate desire and not enough economic strength to endure the financial burden of merging of the two countries. Ever-expanding China, with its growing influence in the region, is still not yet a power that could match the role of the former Soviet Union in such a geopolitical tango. No matter how much Beijing desires to be and postures as the hegemon in the area, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea show no intention of bowing to Chinese ambition. Regardless of its real power, China will never let two Koreas unify unless in its interest, while the U.S. continues to oppose Beijing in becoming regional, and especially global, hegemony.

Regardless, there is another reason for the increasing tension in the area. No matter how firm China appears to be standing with the international community, Beijing will never fully respect the U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea. China does not want North Korea to implode, does not want to see it crumble, as it and South Korea become flooded with the resulting refugees. For China, it’s not the number of people on the run that counts, but the void that exodus would create in the North. That power vacuum could lead to the merging of South and North, the reason behind the continuation of Chinese support to Pyongyang, regardless of Beijing’s rage over Kim’s provocations. Chinese support to North Korea does not come on the back of ideology or friendship, as some might think, but instead by practical power-seeking.

There is, to my mind, one precondition under which Beijing would be willing to consider the unification of the Korean peninsula. China has to conquer–or as Beijing is putting it, bring back–Taiwan first. Only with the return of the rebellious island to the arms of the motherland will China regain a strategic and geopolitically strong enough position to enable Beijing to cope with a United Korea. One of the most important elements of this operation would be, according to Beijing’s plan, to oust the Americans. The present status of the U.S. in the region is much too influential in the defense strategy of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. (For those who do not remember the complicated history of China-Taiwan relations and U.S. involvement, here is the brief recap from the BBC.)

It is interesting that most of the analysis of the current situation does not consider the fact that Mao Zedong tried hard to retake Taiwan after the Kuomintang, defeated in the civil war, escaped to the island. While Mao and his generals were rushing the military preparations to retake the island, the Korean war exploded and prevented the Chinese forces from attempting the coup. Here is how the NationalInterest.org recounts it:

From June 1949 to June 1950, PLA generals under Mao Zedong undertook intensive battle planning and preparations for what was to become the formative strategic challenge facing China’s new communist leadership. An unexpected turn of history kept Mao and his generals from putting their Taiwan invasion plan into action. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, and U.S. President Harry Truman swiftly decided to save South Korea’s friendly government, while also ordering the U.S. Seventh Fleet to prevent a possible Chinese invasion across the Taiwan Strait.

As a consequence, China’s new government aborted the Taiwan invasion, and many of the forces that had been training for the mission were subsequently redeployed to the Sino-Korean border area. In October 1950, “Red” China intervened on the side of North Korea, sending a flood of troops equipped with jungle warfare kits into frigid battles against the United Nations forces led by the United States. This intervention resulted in what was to become two drawn-out and dangerous stalemates which still exist today: one on the Korean Peninsula, the other across the Taiwan Strait.

Why was China’s invasion plan not put into action before the outbreak of the Korean War?

Mao and his generals knew that their chances to invade Taiwan were scarce, especially with the small navy they had. The Chinese army needed more than ships, planes, and troops to conquer Taiwan; they needed a spy network that could orchestrate the defection of commanders, and convince them to support communist operations when the amphibious landings began. The communists had a spy network in place since 1948, and by December 1949 undercover operatives under Chinese control numbered up to 1,300. According to the National Interest, the mainland spymaster Cai Xiaogan, planted in Taiwan in 1946, estimated that up to 50,000 civilians could be mobilized for factory strikes, protest marches, and campus riots just before the landings of the Chinese army would ostensibly start. He recommended the invasion launch in April 1950, when the weather would be most favorable for amphibious operations, but by January 1950 Taiwanese counterintelligence cracked the network and, by March, Cai Xiaogan defected and disclosed the mainland spy operation network. Mao got to know about this very late, just a couple of months before the Korean war started. In October 1950, Chinese mass forces crossed the Yalu River and entered the war. It was compensation for the loss of Taiwan.

Two weeks ago, at the same time the negotiations between the two Koreas started, the South China Morning Post, the English-language paper in Hong Kong, published an article revealing the Chinese plan to reconquer Taiwan by 2020. It is no coincidence that this kind of reaction came from Beijing at this particular time. Four days ago, the same source completed this information with a report on the increased number of military exercises and combat readiness preparations of the Chinese army.

It all fits with the existing propaganda war, as John Pomfret tried to explain in his op-ed for the Washington Post. He quotes from recent books and also Taiwanese sources to analyze all possible options for the mainland to absorb the island. Pomfret, a veteran reporter on China, is skeptical even of what seems to be the most probable military options. And yet, Chinese military might continues to grow. The Chinese have built a navy that it could have only dreamed of in 1949 and substantially increased their capacity to invade the island. Its army is now capable of engaging in battles deep in the ocean and far from the mainland, and of challenging high-tech American military might and strategy.

Let’s hope that Pomfret and others are right that the present positioning will lead to negotiation. I am a pessimist and believe that, as I said earlier, China will not come to the negotiating table before reclaiming Taiwan and securing its hegemonistic role in the area. If this Quartz report on the number of Chinese spies in Taiwan is plausible, then old Mao’s plan to reconquer Taiwan is alive and kicking, especially considering the effective consolidation of power by Xi Jinping, the current Chinese strongman who does not hide his ambitions to insert China into the void created by an increasingly weak America. In this view, any exercise of the reunification of two Koreas encourages Beijing to further consolidate the borders of its empire. Taiwan, Beijing’s historically legitimate request, will be pursued, and perhaps even absorbed. Some might say conquered.

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