Chinese Military Involvement in a Future Korean War
Capt Jacquelyn Schneider, USAF
Strategic Studies Quarterly, 2010 (4), 50 – 67.
I came across a timely article in a not-too-well-known journal last week that discusses the likelihood of China intervening in the next edition of the Korean War (which, based on contemporary news accounts, seems like it could start any day now).
It’s fairly well-known that the beginning of the original Korean War (1950 – 1953) in June 1950 had the side-effect of placing the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Strait to keep another conflict from erupting in East Asia at the same time. The author of this piece, Jacquelyn Schneider, argues that ever since that time, Korea and Taiwan have been linked, which raises some vexing issues for the present:
However loathe the United States is to link actions on the Korean peninsula with Taiwan, it is historically impossible to completely separate the two issues. As mentioned previously, China’s attempts to initially reunify Taiwan with the PRC were stymied by the Korean War. Would it be possible for China to capitalize on the US focus on Korea to launch a simultaneous amphibious operation to conquer Taiwan?
Her question is an interesting one. She answers it by looking at military capability to take Taiwan and willingness to do so. Her take – the capability exists, but it is too difficult for non-Chinese to understand the Taiwan issue fully, for there is no equivalent in the American experience, and thus impossible to make a willingness judgment.
In my mind, if China would decide to enter a new Korean War, assuming that it was initiated by the North, then I think that there would be little additional loss in terms of international standing, economic losses, etc. from also initiating a move against Taiwan. China would already be branded an outlaw and condemned in places like the UN for backing North Korea’s aggression, so why not settle up when it comes to Taiwan at the same time? After all, why else would the PRC have in excess of 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles stationed opposite Taiwan, a burgeoning fleet of attack submarines, and a rapidly modernizing air arm? It’s not to offset any equivalent military buildup taking place in Taiwan, that’s for sure.
Back to Korea, though, Schneider surmises that modern China as a largely integrated stakeholder in the international order has too much to lose, and thus chiefly for this reason (though also including the absence of a Mao-like leader, fear of domestic repercussions in term of refugee flows out of North Korea, and the vulnerability of critical infrastructure in Northeast China to U.S. attack) would not enter a new Korean War. That’s all well and good, but I think there is more to it than that – what about treaty obligations? My understanding of the PRC – DPRK treaty of friendship, etc. is that it makes security guarantees that specifically exclude those of the nuclear umbrella-type, but that it also states that the PRC is under no obligation to assist if the DPRK initiates the aggression. How about this – the DPRK attacks South Korea (as we’ve seen them do twice this year so far), who then counterattacks into North Korea, and then the attacks escalate, from initial artillery and air strikes on mainly military facilities of both sides to more and more areas populated mainly by civilians, at which point U.S. forces become involved in a range of military operations, including troop movements (with the South Koreans) across the DMZ. What now, China? I think that in such a case, the PRC joins in – I don’t think they are going to sit idly by if U.S. forces are being actively involved, just as I think U.S. forces would be automatically committed if PRC forces were involved. It’s like each side on the Korean peninsula has their “big brother” there waiting to jump in if the other side’s back-up decides to get feisty.
And, if that all happens, then who knows if China would decide to try to capitalize on the opportunity to move on Taiwan? It’s certainly a possibility I hope the planners at U.S. Pacific Command have taken into account…
Schneider goes on to introduce some very sensible “rules of engagement” that would help prevent a rapidly escalating conflict in Korea between the primarily interested non-territorial powers, including the establishment of buffer zones and assignment of responsibility over refugees in particular locations. I agree that measures such as these would be essential to keep from quickly moving down the road to a greatly expanded war in Korea. (Ah, but could the U.S. trust China to live up to their parts in the rules? She talks about this as well…read the article.)
She returns to the Taiwan issue at the end:
The change [North Korea’s defeat and the reunification of the Korean peninsula] could prove advantageous for decoupling the Taiwan situation from the Korean peninsula. By demonstrating the will to use force, openness in military planning, and gracious collaboration in victory, the United States would demonstrate its inherent trust in China to participate in the region as a stabilizer.
…and then the closer:
In a game of multiple iterations, a Korean conflict could help the United States and China more advantageously perceive utility and value of each nation’s interests and actions in Asia. By building trust between the two players in the Asian region, the probability of provoking conflict becomes less likely. Perversely, if executed properly, a conflict on the Korean peninsula could serve as a stabilizing event in the Pacific region.
I’m not buying it. It’s just too optimistic. I can only see negative and ill effects on the Asia-Pacific region from a new Korean War – heaps of dead bodies in Seoul, a shattered former North Korea hollowed out from refugee outflows, and an even greater tension between China and the United States, if not outright war. I think she’s right about decoupling Korea and Taiwan, but only because there would no longer be troops facing off over the 38th Parallel. If China refrained from invading Taiwan at the same time, then cross-Strait tensions would be vaulted to new highs. Let’s hope Korea doesn’t kick off anytime soon – the U.S. is militarily still too preoccupied with exiting Iraq and searching for the door in Afghanistan.