In Dealing with North Korea, America Must Keep One Eye on Taiwan
Taiwanese soldiers in a military drill. (Photo: Reuters) 
By Corey Lee Bell and Ted Huang

In Dealing with North Korea, America Must Keep One Eye on Taiwan

May. 10, 2019  |     |  0 comments

In May 1950, a force of approximately 100,000 troops of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amassed on the Southeast coast of China. They were awaiting orders for an important mission — the “liberation” of Taiwan, and the unification of China.

The signs were initially propitious for the PRC leadership. The PLA had not long prior expelled the forces of the Kuomintang (KMT)-led Republic of China (ROC) from the Chinese mainland, and had a month earlier pressed on to capture the tropical island of Hainan and the strategically vital Zhoushan Islands.

Then-United States” president Harry Truman, who disdained the KMT and its leader, the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, had just released a public statement in which he imputed that Taiwan, the new home of the ROC, was outside of the United States” Far Eastern defense perimeter. This was interpreted to mean that America would not interfere in the event of a PRC invasion of Taiwan.

And on May 26, America’s consulate staff in the ROC’s new de facto capital in Taiwan, Taipei, were ordered to prepare for an emergency evacuation. This came after resident diplomat Robert C. Strong had sent a frank communique to Washington stating that the fate of the ROC was all but sealed.

Then, on June 25, war broke out on the Korean peninsula. Almost immediately, America responded by deploying its 7th Fleet to the region. However, instead of setting sail for a location near the Korean peninsula, it went to the Taiwan Strait. Within weeks, the Taiwan invasion was postponed, and the invasion force was soon after redeployed to the Korean peninsula. China’s golden opportunity for a prompt “reunification” of China was no more.

These developments had a deep and lasting impact on China’s leaders. For Beijing, Truman’s “guarantee” was not only a grave perfidy — it had also made false its own promise of a prompt, complete victory in the Chinese civil war. Such was the chagrin in the CPC that as the world was engrossed in North Korea’s unfolding bloody invasion of South Korea, in China the bulk of the media’s attention was on another “invasion” and “occupation” — that of the American military on a part of China”s “sovereign territory”. Mao Zedong’s later decision to redirect the Taiwan invasion force to Korea ultimately delayed China’s plans to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland. Yet for Beijing, it was America who made use of the Korean conflict to extend China’s humiliating division.

The point of this historical sojourn is that it is necessary to reflect on these events if one wishes to understand currently unfolding security challenges in Northeast Asia. This is in part the case because the CPC’s desire to redress this humiliation remains strong to this day. But it is also founded due to the emergence of clear parallels between those occurrences, and more recent developments affecting the security architecture of Northeast Asia. Most importantly, that event in 1950 has shaped a distinctive Chinese way of thinking about the strategic relationship between these two neighboring theatres (the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait) that has added significance in light of recent events. One core tenet of this way of thinking is that the two theatres are comprehensively and integrally interconnected. The second is that China, and not America, will pro-actively take advantage of significant events on the Korean peninsula to seek to resolve the Taiwan “problem”.

This point brings us back to recent developments on the Korean peninsula. On some measures the region has emerged from the prolonged state of crisis caused by Pyongyang’s series of missile tests and bellicose rhetoric from 2016 to early/mid 2018. Nonetheless, the failure of the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, and Pyongyang’s resumption of weapons tests subsequent to this meeting, leaves open a number of possible scenarios. Taiwan may well be far from the minds of many Western observers who are still trying to decide what to make of this. But for Chinese and Taiwanese analysts, the ramifications of this meeting for Taiwan’s future are very much in the foreground. It is thus vitally important for us to be more aware of the tenets of this distinctive strategic calculus.

The remainder of this article examines this peculiar Chinese “Korea-Taiwan nexus” paradigm, focusing on 1. how historical factors have shaped this strategic calculus, and 2. how it has informed a number of concrete ideas about how China may deal with the Taiwan “problem”.

The Development of the “Korea-Taiwan Nexus” since the Korean War

America’s actions in the Taiwan Strait in 1950 showed China that the emerging great power game involving the United States and the Communist bloc had firmed the strategic coupling between the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula. However, the Korean war (1950-1953) transformed this nexus, again in ways that China had not envisioned.

Before the war, Stalin predicted that victory would not only strengthen China’s security by pushing United States forces from Korean peninsula, it would also better position China to push back against America in the western Pacific and reclaim Taiwan. Several years later, however, virtually the opposite scenario eventuated. Soon after the cessation of hostilities, China’s forces were promptly expelled from the peninsula (owing to a recalcitrant Kim Il-sung), while American forces established a more permanent presence. Moreover, China’s involvement in the hostilities firmed America’s commitment to prevent the expansion of communism in other theatres in the Asia Pacific region. America as a result retained a military foothold on the “land bridge” leading to China’s political heartland in the wake of the war, and gained both a greater incentive and capacity to protect Taiwan and the sea routes that passed it, and that fed its new allies in Northeast Asia. In the wake of this war, the strategic nexus between the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula had moved from being a possible opportunity for China’s rise in the region, to a core foundation of America’s regional hegemony.

This American hegemony has meant that the relative stability which has since endured on both the peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait (punctuated infrequently by three Taiwan Strait Crises and North Korean bellicosity) have been to some degree mutually reinforcing. Yet conversely, it is plausible that as American hegemony faces new challenges, crises or substantial transformations in one theatre (namely, the Korean peninsula) could pave the way for the destabilization of the other (i.e., the Taiwan Strait). America’s hegemony in the region is now without question being challenged by a resurgent China. In the wake of the failure of the Hanoi meetings and the recent resumption of weapons tests in North Korea, it is more important than ever to consider more carefully the potential for such a regional contagion.

This shift in the power balance in the region also means that we should not let this long history of relative stability in the region incite complacency. Deng Xiaoping in 1990 famously remarked that China needed to “hide our strength and bide our time” (taoguang yanghui). Yet since then, just when this time will arrive has been a perennial question. Pertinently, as early as 1979, Deng used his New Year’s Declaration to proclaim that a strong China could not be a divided China, implying that the arrival of China’s “time” would mark, or be marked by, reunification across the Taiwan Strait. Since the inauguration of Chairman Xi Jinping, many in China have come to believe that the period of “taoguang yanghui” is coming to an end and that China’s “time” is here or is at least imminent. These voices began rising at the same time that the Korean peninsula again entered into a period of heightened instability.

In many ways, thus, the situation in the western Pacific today resonates with that of the late 1940s and early 1950s. China’s current Chairman Xi Jinping is on all accounts its most charismatic, nationalistic and ambitious leader since Mao. And as with the case of Mao, Xi’s early tenure has witnessed crises on the Korean peninsula which have prompted America to strengthen its pivot back to the region, and prompted China to again reconsider its strategic priorities. As this has occurred, there has been a remarkable surge in the volume of Chinese language writings in China and Taiwan discussing strategic “nexuses” between the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. Since 2013 (and to a lesser extent 2009), literally hundreds of articles, editorials and features have been written on this topic in China, and by Taiwanese China watchers. This trend peaked soon after the new “crises” erupted in 2016.

Below we discuss some of the more prominent ideas that appear in Chinese language writings from China and especially Taiwan (as well as some Anglophone sources) on how ongoing developments in relation to the North Korea “problem” could present China not only with new dangers, but also new opportunities to realize its aspirations to reunify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland.

A North Korea/Taiwan Trade-off?

One popular view in recent Chinese language writings on this nexus is that as the West looks to China to play a pivotal role in curtailing North Korea’s bellicosity and nuclearization, China will use this role to leverage America in relation to the Taiwan issue.

A common and milder version of this idea holds that cooperation on the North Korean crisis should promote the idea that China has become a responsible stakeholder in global affairs, and make the United States come to the table and give proper consideration to China’s aspirations for unification.

However, more recently, growing attention has also been given to a more radical idea — that America may “sell out” Taiwan in exchange for China agreeing to “sell out” North Korea in the event that Pyongyang begins to pose a more immediate threat to America and its regional allies.

A core foundation of this theory is the view that the value of North Korea to China, and the stake that the US has in Taiwan, are no longer what they used to be — that both have become “tradeable” commodities.

In the case of Beijing’s attitudes towards North Korea, this idea is not new. Georgetown University’s Oriana Skylar Maestro has observed that many officials in China have long felt that North Korea has become a strategic burden to China.[1] Moreover, some CPC officials and Chinese analysts have stated this position openly. Mirroring the views famously expressed by Deng Yuwen in 2013, the esteemed Chinese historian and expert on Sino-North Korean relations, Shen Zhihua, recently ventured to proclaim that China’s relationship with North Korea has become so plagued by conflicts of interests and values that Pyongyang could well be regarded as a “potential enemy” of China.[2] While the relationship has improved on the back of the recent series of Kim-Xi meetings, should North Korea resume its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s history of recalcitrance and bellicosity could well prompt Beijing to decide that the cost of the alliance far outweighs the benefits.

Michael Cole’s contention that China could seek to right historical wrongs in the event of a new crisis on the peninsula reminds us of the adage that history rarely repeats but often rhymes.

Yet while the change in North Korea’s status in China has evolved gradually on the back of a long history of recalcitrance from Pyongyang, the more significant recent transformation is the view — in Taiwan in particular — that America’s resolve to stand by Taiwan is being eroded.

In part this view has begun to emerge because of the ongoing shift in the balance of power in the region. Firstly, China’s island building and strengthened presence in the South China Sea threatens to make the imperative of keeping open the sea routes passing by the Taiwan Strait redundant (i.e., these routes also pass through the South China Sea). But more generally, there is a growing perception in China and Taiwan that America — as a “declining” power — increasingly sees Taiwan as an insurance policy and/or “bargaining chip” to be cashed in at an opportune or critical juncture. A specific fear is that this “chip” could be “cashed in” to counter an immediate threat to America’s core interests emanating from North Korean.

Such an idea has recently been conveyed in a BBC Chinese language report compiled by its Taiwan reporter Wei Ke, who reported that “relevant departments in Taiwan” are concerned that in the event that war broke out in the peninsula, “America would sell out Taiwan’s interests in exchange for China not interfering” in an invasion on its “ally”.[3] Others in Taiwan fear that even if China does not oppose American action to extinguish an imminent threat on the peninsula, China could still exert leverage over America in view of the important role it would be required to play in (and in the wake of) such a conflict. As former ROC army Lieutenant General Wu Sz-huai has noted, in the event of war on the peninsula, America as it stands cannot hope to immediately eradicate North Korea’s nuclear weapons without assistance from China, who has far more reliable and precise intelligence in relation to the location and nature of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. According to Wu, the US could well be compelled to use Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” to secure cooperation from China to avert a catastrophe on or beyond the peninsula.[4]

As implausible as it may sound to some, this “Taiwan card/bargaining chip” theory has recently prompted growing consternation among Taiwanese officials and political elites. The notion that Taiwan could serve as a stake in Sino-American negotiations on security problems was previously raised by Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou (who served between 2008-2016), on advice from ROC analysts. It again attracted concern after the outbreak of the latest series of crises on the Korean peninsula, when Taiwan’s outspoken mayor Ko Wen-je accused the US of treating Taiwan like an commodity put on display on a store shelf.[5] Perhaps most importantly, Taiwan’s independence-leaning Liberty Times has pointed out that “selling out” Taiwan is a serious possibility in part because of one key point — it does not necessary require America to violate the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which legally obliges the US to come to the defense of Taiwan.[6] As observed by Ian Easton in his recently published book The China Invasion Threat, China prefers to pursue reunification through intimidation rather than outright invasion, and aims to achieve this through a strategy of coercing Taiwan to capitulate by making it feel imperiled and uncertain of the resolve of its allies, and the United States in particular. Resonating with this point, the PLA dramatically upped the frequency of incursions into Taiwan’s airspace at the same time that it was cooperating with the US to deal with the North Korean crises, and America’s delayed and relatively moderate responses to this (which included an increase in weapons sales and belated freedom of navigation exercises) disappointed officials in Taiwan. These PLA incursions have since escalated.

One “Unification” Begetting Another?

Aside from voicing concern that America could “sell out” Taiwan to eradicate immediate threats emanating from the Korean peninsula, some Taiwanese analysts also surmise that unification between North and South Korea could similarly prompt China to move to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.

This fear is in part founded on the view that because securing China’s “buffer” on the peninsula has been a strategic priority for China, a development on the peninsula that puts China’s security concerns to rest could make forcing Taiwan to reunify with the Chinese mainland Beijing’s new top priority. Yang Yongming, an expert on international relations in the Asia Pacific regions, is one of a number of analysts in Taiwan who has voiced such a concern, having advanced that peace on the Korean peninsula could make Taiwan the “new flash point for military action” in the Asia Pacific region.[7]

Yet there is another consideration at play — the relation between the presence and absence of tension on the peninsula, and shifts in America’s Asian pivot. Shen Zhihua, in a recent speech, noted that Pyongyang’s penchant for bellicosity has harmed China more than any other nation. He feels that this is the case because the Kim regime’s threats have given the United States an “excuse” to expand its military presence in the region, coerce Seoul to allow it to install THAAD systems in South Korea, and tacitly permit Japan’s efforts to revise its pacifist constitution. This adheres to a more widely held view in China that far from wanting peace, America “needs” North Korean bellicosity to legitimize a campaign to “fence in” China — which also strengthens America’s position to head off military threats Taiwan. This resonates with Chinese views in relation to the strategic calculus that motivated America’s actions to protect Taiwan in 1950.

Yet some in China hold out hope that the opposite could apply — just as tensions on the peninsula gave America reasons to increase its military presence in the region, peace on the peninsula could be used to compel the United States to reduce it. This could especially be the case if China’s engagement in the peace process transformed its diplomatic relationship with Seoul.

Shen Zhihua — mirroring Deng Yuwen and others — is one respected Chinese figure that has advanced that South Korea could be a “friend” to China, and that Beijing should try to win over Seoul and back its vision (as opposed to that of North Korea) of a unified Korea[8]. One of the reasons for supporting this course of action is his argument that a “friendly” South Korea could be convinced to expel American forces from the peninsula. Because such a unified Korean state would be less likely to engage in provocations and bellicosity, America’s military presence could also face a greater push back from other nations in the region — which would also weaken America’s capacity to promptly respond to an assault on Taiwan. Melissa Newcomb of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) is one non-Chinese analyst that has voiced this fear.[9]

The notion that America troops could be pushed out of the peninsula in the event of Korean unification apparently does have (or at least had) an audience in the halls of Zhongnanhai (i.e., the CPC) — it was revealed in the much-publicized recently declassified batch of South Korean diplomatic cables. Moreover, the unification on the peninsula would have diplomatic value for China on another front. China’s opposition to North Korea’s aspirations to forcefully reunify the peninsula has led many Chinese scholars to emphasize fundamental differences between the political division on the Korean peninsula and that between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Should the North reunify with South Korea on the latter’s terms, this would likely give way to the resurgence of the older doctrine of national reunification as a pan-Asian aspiration.

A War on Two Fronts

Lastly, some Chinese and Taiwanese analysts see an advantage for China in relation to realizing its aspirations for Taiwan should a starkly different scenario eventuate — i.e., if there is an outbreak of hostilities on the peninsula.

Such a point has been noted by Michael Cole, a scholar at the Taiwan Policy Institute, who fears that “Chinese retaliation against Taiwan amid a US military move on North Korea would be an occasion for Beijing to redress two historical wounds inflicted by Washington in 1950 and again in 1995–6 [when the US again deployed the 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait].” A similar view was also raised in an article in the Taiwanese, Chinese language China Times in September 2017, which cited a mainland Chinese expert on Asian Pacific affairs as claiming “If America uses military means to overcome the North Korea problem, then we can’t discount the use of force [by China] in relation to the Taiwan problem.”[10]

In addition to presenting China with an opportunity to address what it regards to be historical “injustices”, such an action would have a strategic underpinning. Citing Taiwanese government sources, Wei Ke’s BBC Chinese article conveyed concerns among Taiwanese officials that China’s PLA could use the outbreak of military action against Korea as cover to launch a sudden strike against Taiwan — a concern which has also been raised by the American diplomat Derek James Mitchell. On the mainland, an opinion piece titled “Three Appraisals in Relation to the Situation on the Korean Peninsula” (關於韓半島局勢三個判斷) (Sep. 11, 2017), published by Beyondnewsnet — a relatively well respected Guangzhou based portal for military related news — has pointed out that forcing America to fight on two fronts at once in the West Pacific against a Chinese navy that now has far more advanced anti-access capacities could well overstretch America’s capacity.

Yet there is also a fear that a war on the peninsula could place Taiwan in a strategic bind. Any attempt by Taiwan to develop a nuclear deterrent has long been regarded as a red line by Beijing — and this line was recently extended to the installation of THAAD technology on ROC territory. More recently, fear has also grown that the island’s involvement in any capacity in a Korean conflict — whether it involves the deployment of US military assets in Taiwan, or a minor role such as providing supply or logistics support — could prompt China to claim legitimate grounds for moving against Taiwanese assets, including those located on the island itself. As pointed out by Wei Ke, a view has thus arisen among officials in Taiwan that the ROC's best response to a conflict on the peninsula would be to firmly resist American pressure to provide support in any capacity. As the former Minister of Defense Feng Shih-kuan has noted, Taiwan’s precarious position demands that it should never be tempted to “fight other people’s wars.”

The Rhyme of History - Could the End of One Crises Beget Another?

Michael Cole’s contention that China could seek to right historical wrongs in the event of a new crisis on the peninsula reminds us of the adage that history rarely repeats but often rhymes. While China’s concrete plans remain unknown, and the trajectory of future developments on the peninsula remain uncertain, underestimating this ambition, and failing to fully appreciate this strategic nexus, could well give China an opportunity to weave such rhymes into its own prosody of poetic justice. Notably on this point, when the new crises in the peninsula flared in 2016-2018, China again seethed at Washington’s “excuse” for dispatching its navy to the West Pacific. On this occasion, however, it was ultimately an emboldened PLA, rather than American forces, that most swiftly made their presence felt over the Taiwan Strait.

In a similar vein, China has its own intrinsic motivations for playing a role in de-escalating the more recent Korean crises, rather than again rushing to take the side of its recalcitrant ally. Four meetings have been held between China and North Korea’s leaders (the so-called “Kim-Xi meetings”), and China’s stick-and-carrot approach to economic cooperation has arguably helped prod Pyongyang to take baby-steps towards denuclearization and improving its relationship with Washington. Moreover, as was the case immediately after the conclusion of the Korean War (which was soon followed by the First Taiwan Strait Crisis), this de-escalation is coinciding with a shift in attention in China back towards the regime’s “unfinished business” in relation to Taiwan. Tellingly, roughly two weeks after the CPC received assurances from high ranking diplomats from Pyongyang that North Korea had deepened its commitment to adopt a “new path” that veered away from its past inclining for bellicosity and provocation, Xi Jinping — on the 40th anniversary of Deng’s “79 New Year’s Declaration” — felt obliged to affirm that a divided China can never be strong and that China and Taiwan must soon be reunited. Compared with both Mao and Deng, Xi has a far greater capacity to make this a reality.

[1] ‘Why China won’t rescue North Korea’, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb issue, 2018.

[2] Shen Zhihua 从中朝关系史的角度看“萨德”问题 (Looking at the THAAD issue from the perspective of the history of Sino-North Korean relations). This article features an edited recording of a lecture delivered at the Dalian University of Foreign Languages on Mar 19, 2017. The transcript can be found on ‘Aisixiang’ (uploaded Mar 23, 2017) and a number of other Chinese language websites - see, for instance, Deng’s controversial views on the Sino-North Korean relationship, which ultimately saw him sacked from his position as the Deputy Editor of the Central Party School's journal, the Study Times, can be found in the article ‘China should abandon North Korea,’ FT, Feb. 28, 2013.

[3] ‘朝鮮半島若爆發衝突 台灣能做什麼?’ (What can Taiwan do if conflict breaks out on the Korean peninsula?), BBC Chinese, Oct 17, 2017.

[4] 北韩危机 退将吴斯怀:台湾恐陷「筹码化」 (Retired general Wu Szu-huai [on the matter of] the crises on the Korean peninsula: Taiwan may become a ‘bargaining chip’), China Times, Sep 18, 2017.

[5] “Taiwan is not for sale: foreign minister”, Taiwan News, Oct 22, 2018.

[6] 共軍機艦頻繞台 美學者易思安:習近平仍想武統台灣 (PLA aircraft and ships frequently navigate around Taiwan  American scholar Ian Easton: Xi Jinping is still considering using military force to reunify Taiwan [with China]), July 30, 2017.

[7] Li Chao, 朝韩高峰会谈背景下 台湾当局寻回两岸官方互动的途径 (In the backdrop of the North Korea/South Korea leadership meeting, Taiwanese authorities search for a pathway to official cross-strait interaction), Tonyi luntan, 2018, no. 4, pp. 49-52.

[8] ‘Looking at the THAAD issue from the perspective of the history of Sino-North Korean relations’

[9] ‘A unified Korea, a vulnerable Taiwan,’ ‘The National Bureau of Asian Research’ (website), Oct 23, 2018.

[10] See ‘A U.S. Attack on North Korea: Could China Retaliate Against Taiwan?’, National Interest, Dec 27, 2017. The article from the China Times is the aforementioned ‘Retired general Wu Szu-huai [on the matter of] the crises on the Korean peninsula: Taiwan could turn into a “bargaining chip”.

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