China as peacemaker

March 27, 2013

Nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula demands creative solutions. With a 2,200-year history of non-aggression, China is in the best position to take the lead — and relieve the United States of a burden it has shouldered for too long.

In fact, no other nation  has had as stable a pattern of world citizenship. Over two millennia, China has not attempted to conquer its neighbors or spread its system of government on any scale remotely comparable to the Romans, Mongols, British, Germans, French, Spanish, Russians, Japanese or even Americans. China does brutally resist the secession of Tibet, which it considers part of its ancient patrimony. But it has not grasped for lands beyond its historical borders.

There is no reason to think the Middle Kingdom has merely been biding its time. Indeed, if any nation can be said to have a long-term strategy, it is China. Premier Zhou Enlai, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789, allegedly replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

China also has a 2,200-year record of authoritarian rule. Even so, it has become steadily more open — at its own glacial pace. China’s government is more responsive to its people now than it was under the Han, Ming or Qing dynasties, ending in 1911. After a long period of civil war in the first half of the 20th century, worsened by a brutal Japanese occupation, the dictator Mao Zedong restored order.

Since 1979, the repressive government has slowly provided more freedoms to its 1.3 billion citizens — beginning with what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “freedom from want.” Today, the Chinese people are freer to save, accumulate, conduct business and travel abroad than perhaps at any other time in China’s 2,200-year history as a coherent state.

Pundits and professional worriers tend to paint China as a burgeoning military threat. This is a serious misinterpretation of a very long track record that includes the peaceful re-annexation of British Hong Kong and continuing restraint toward Taiwan (lost first to the Japanese, and then as a result of civil war). Unjustified suspicions blind policymakers to important security options at a volatile time in Northeast Asia.

Like pioneers of yore, we need to read the trail to understand where China is headed and how we might ease its path.

For centuries, China was the economic powerhouse of the globe. As Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, commented in 1776, “China is a much richer country than any part of Europe.” Today, more than anything else, the ancient nation wants to be rich again — though in ways that do not leave commoners mired in squalor, as before. Its commercial policies are aggressive, but it is not territorially expansive. China understands that physical conquest — as Japan’s World War II experience proved — can undermine economic success in the modern world.

Instead, to achieve its goals, China needs regional peace and stability. It has a far greater stake in capitalist South Korea’s health and happiness than even the United States, which has guaranteed Seoul’s safety for the past 60 years as part of its campaign to stop the worldwide spread of communism — a task now completed.

South Korean companies such as Samsung are among the world’s largest producers of semiconductors, the electronic chips that nourish everything in the electronic food chain from toys to automobiles. Semiconductors are key to economic growth around the globe.

Though China’s manufacturing base has gone viral, it does not make these precious chips in any significant amount — partly because foreign investors won’t set up shop, given the lax enforcement of intellectual-property rights. China depends heavily on imported semiconductors, for which its best and closest suppliers are South Korea and Taiwan.

Semiconductor plants require enormous investment; a single factory costs $6 billion or more. They are geese, laying golden eggs. The last thing China wants is a nuclear or conventional war between its immediate neighbors that might destroy this industrial infrastructure. Li Baodong, China’s envoy to the United Nations, said as much in early March, after the last round of sanctions against North Korea to discourage Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear ambitions. “We are formally committed,” Li insisted, “to safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

This statement is of critical importance to Washington, which should do everything possible to encourage China to take on the role of peacemaker and enforcer. The United States has played bad cop in relation to North Korea for six decades. We still have 28,500 troops on the ground in a war without end.

An armistice brought the three-year civil war between North and South to a temporary halt in 1953. The peace treaty, however, never followed.

Modern world history shows that Band-Aids need to come off for healing to happen — despite the sting. Japan’s recovery after World War II was delayed for six years, until the allied countries finally agreed to sign a peace treaty in 1951. Thirty years after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the Helsinki Accords of 1975 formally established peace in Europe. The accords reduced tensions across the continent and eventually led to the end of the Cold War.

The 60-year delay in formally ending the Korean War has had costly repercussions. No blue-helmeted U.N. troops patrol the demilitarized zone, as in other post-conflict areas, to keep peace once it’s been established. Instead, the United States has borne the expensive military burden of enforcing another country’s day-to-day defense for six decades — enabling South Korea to democratize and flourish.

In addition to straining our national budget, this commitment has bought us animosity on both sides of the 38th parallel. A survey of South Korean military cadets in 2004 found that more ranked the United States as the “country’s main enemy” than ranked North Korea as the primary threat. Young Americans who teach English in Seoul find signs at some restaurants saying, “No Foreigners Allowed.”

If not an example of the axiom “No good deed goes unpunished,” these reactions may belong in the category of nationalist responses to the long-term presence of foreigners — regardless of how helpful they may be.

A former graduate student at San Diego State University, where I teach, recalls liking the cookies that friendly U.S. soldiers brought to the South Korean orphanage where he was raised in the 1980s. But he also remembers being mystified as to why the “white men” were there. It’s a question the majority of Americans might have a hard time answering, given that the U.S. commitment predates their birth.

The United States has given South Korea more in the way of shelter than any competitive nation-state has given another in perhaps all world history. But this effort has hit a point of diminishing returns for everyone involved.

More of the same promises little in the way of progress. It’s time for China to become umpire and peacemaker of the region, consistent with its historical record and modern aspirations.

The 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice is July 27, 2013. Let’s celebrate with a peace treaty that allows Washington to bring our troops home for good.


PHOTO (Top): North Korea’s artillery sub-units, whose mission is to strike Daeyeonpyeong island and Baengnyeong island of South Korea, conduct a live shell firing drill to examine war fighting capabilities in the western sector of the front line in this picture released by the North’s official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 14, 2013. REUTERS/KCNA

PHOTO (Insert A): North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) talks with Wang Jiarui (L), the head of the International Liaison Department of China’s Communist Party, in Pyongyang August 2, 2012, picture  released by the North’s official KCNA news agency. The agency said this was the new leader’s first reception of a foreign official since taking power. REUTERS/KCNA

PHOTO (Insert B): A Chinese border trade boat is seen docking at the North Korean banks of Sinuiju, unloading goods to North Korea, October 23, 2012. REUTERS/Aly Song

PHOTO (Insert C): North Korean soldiers look across a concrete border as a U.S. army soldier (R) stands guard at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), in Paju, 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul, December 2, 2011.  REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won











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A peace treaty between North Korea and the US has always been what the North wanted since the code war ended. The US instead wants a) regime collapse in the North and b) military containment around China. What the author has proposed is exactly opposite to the US strategic goal.

Posted by mathhero | Report as abusive

This article inadvertently reveals the very deep racism of many Asians. “Why were the white men there?” Indeed. After over 125 thousand American dead and wounded in the Korean War. And after billions of dollars spent over decades under U.S. military protection. Perhaps it’s time for both Koreas to fend for themselves between China and Japan.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

This is a very sensible and historically well-informed article. If only policy makers would heed such advice rather than relying so heavily on military options.

Posted by DavidHillstrom | Report as abusive

Please, China a peacemaker!? That’ll happen when pigs fly. War on the Korean peninsula is coming thanks to the threats and actions of the young tyrant trying to make his bones. Hopefully the USA doesn’t get caught up in another brutal ground war there and makes S. Korea tow its own line. We can provide the air and naval power in support of them to knock the little dictator out of power and fleeing to China for safe haven.

Posted by Sammy61 | Report as abusive

I <3 CHINA. I hope they step up and stop NK from starting WW3.

Posted by macmcrae | Report as abusive

China is not yet ready for the role the world expects it to play. It needs time to get used to its new power and influence in the region and in the entire world. In the meantime, however, the US should maintain its reasonable presence in the region and actively cooperate with China to bring peace, stability and prosperity. It’s crucial that the US does not withdraw its troops in South Korea(or in any other countries in the region) prematurely. Also important is for the US to pull out when its military presence is no longer necessary. That way, the stability of the Asia-Pacific region is preserved, and the US can significantly reduce its military budget and personnel. Only then can the US servicemen finish their job and come home as heroes.

Posted by oscillation | Report as abusive

I am an American living in South Korea. I have personally experienced racism from the South Korean people as a result of their frustration with the US military presence in their country. The general public feeling over here is that the US military is not wanted or needed. Leave Korea to the Koreans!

Posted by Coronado1987 | Report as abusive

Sadly the author reveals a horrible ignorance of history. China does not have “a 2,200-year history of non-aggression”. That’s just PRC propaganda but not much more.

Of course, most of what nowadays is China was conquered by the Manchu & incorporated into their empire. & China more or less inherited it in 1911. But I haven’t heard any Chinese saying “OK, let’s set Xinjiang free, because it was only part of the Manchu empire, not China.” Official history here sees the Manchu anyway as Chinese, so their conquests would be (acc. to that view) Chinese. Non-aggression?
A more recent example of Chinese “non-aggression” may be the Korea War. Not to forget the little adventure in 1979. Ask the Vietnamese about China being peaceful!

Posted by bossel | Report as abusive

2200 years of non-aggression? What history books have you been reading? Go ask the Koreans, Tibetans, Thais, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Malaysians, etc. about the non-aggression of the Chinese.
This article is a complete joke, written by someone with a terrible understanding of history. I cannot begin to describe how appalled I am that this article is on Reuters, a worldwide publication!

Posted by damann888 | Report as abusive

Ms Hoffman offers a wise historical perspective. Thinking of the role of China in the region for two millennia, rather the brief moment in time since the 1949 creation of the PRC, does give a reader a better view of China’s national interests. In my memory, even China’s incursion into Vietnam (after 1975) was more to stabilize the newly unified society there than to oppose any external foe. May Ms Hoffman’s vision come to bear fruit in a calming of saber rattling and threatened hostilities in the region!

Merle F, San Diego, California

Posted by MerleF | Report as abusive

Why you think China should do so (stop North Korea)?

China thinks: let the USA backrupt itself with its empire.

The NeoCons will surely help.

So North Korea is the perfect case.

Posted by castendijk | Report as abusive

Our sentiment grows from influence by and interaction with other people. My journey from admiration to being uncomfortable with Americans has gradually been pushed by arrogance, ignorance and superiority complex exuded by them.

I don’t hate Americans and try to compare their state of mind with ours during the Cultural Revolution. At that time wa were indoctrinated deeply and were unwilling to look at and listen to other things in reality with an open mind. It is a pity some of them are just like that.

In my opinion, the author of this article understands our culture through our history.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

Ms. Hoffman,

I do not share you benign view of China. This is a country with over three million in its standing army; the PLA. This makes it of course the largest army in the world. It is rapidly building a naval fleet to match that of the US in the Pacific. Last month China announced that it was working on ballistic missiles it could fire from its battle ships. They are currently not advanced enough to challenge USA but not too far behind.
They will not fire missiles until they are sure they can take on USA.. best estimate for readiness by most think tanks is in 1925.

A few years ago a PLA high ranking general threatened that he could take out the three major western cities of US; San Diego, LA and San Francisco, with Chinese missiles. The threat sat out there in the media (reported in WSJ and NYT) for nearly two weeks. Finally, probably at the urging of Beijing, he retracted his threat. So the PLA we can take from that, is belligerent.

The point being Ms. Hoffman, that the PLA is a force to be reckoned with by the Beijing government. One never really knows who is in charge and who will win out in the end, the professional soldiers who really would love a good war with USA or the men in suits, mainly engineers in Beijing aka the current government, who insist that they can win more by soft power and trade and exports. By soft power I mean propaganda and gifts of ‘tied aid’ such as now given by the Chinese to Africa and New Guinea so that they can then mine these places for minerals.

My fear is that the PLA will win not Beijing. The government needs the army as without it they could not have put down the T. Square massacre. So the government is in debt to the PLA which incidentally controls vast resources in the PRC, especially coal mines. In other words it is financially independent and does not need the government telling it what to do. The US army is paid by DC so there is no doubt who is boss.

China is of course North Korea’s main allay and the latter country’s ongoing belligerence has meant that Japan is now re-arming and India, the world’s largest democracy is increasingly arming and building more nuclear devices having fought a war against the Chinese in 1962 when the Chinese grabbed a lot of their territory. This is an example if you needed one of the PRS making war outside its own territories.

You place great reliance on the fact that the country called China before the PRC was invented in 1947 did not make external wars. The reason for that is that the history of China from its inception in about 3,000 BC till at least 1800 AD was one of warring groups. Whenever one got on top they called themselves a dynasty until toppled by the next group. In other words, they were far too busy fighting each other to look outside. One reason why it was so easy for Genghis Khan and his Mongolian horseman to conquer the Chinese.

Note to Kailim: “Please explain what the Tieneman Square massacre of the university students (calling for democracy) by the Peoples Liberation Army was all about?”

Posted by peacenik007 | Report as abusive

Only if the US wants peace.
The US want to keep tension high in Korea to use it as a leverage against China.
The North Korean crisis can be solved only when the US changes policies devised by Neocons to trap China using North Korea as a bait. Or, when Chiana becomes strong enough to persuade or force the US to change course.

Posted by PuppetMaster2 | Report as abusive

The position that the author outlines here is both well reasoned and supported by historical analysis. The US should pull back from the WWII political fault lines.

Posted by DavidHillstrom | Report as abusive

A great sequel to your weightier suggestion that America should relinquish the role of global umpire. I can’t help being influnced by a rather overdramatic movie of Chinese political crimes and intrigues (Red Corner which came out in the 80’s or 90’s) which seems as apposite today as it was when made. I doubt if China wants to be the global umpire, let alone try and ajudicate ie boss around its nutty neighbour North Korea. Bomb NK to smithereens if they make a bad move, sure, why not, China has always been good at the big picture. As for China playing good cop to America’s bad cop, I’m none too sure if this is a strategy by design or default. I doubt that China wants to associate itself with a bad cop, least of all with NK as its neighbour from hell. Sooner or late NK will have missiles to hurl at the US and we learn, if we don’t already know, that Reagan’s Starwars defence blanket was and remains an aspiration/fantasy. Once suitably armed for long distance aggression, NK’s first and easiest port of call will be to attack SK. What then will our present world umpire propose or insist upon? And what will China do? Just look inscrutable and hope that this comes across as “don’t even think about messing with us”? It would be great to think that the US and China have a good working relationship that can respond to this threat but, with politicians the way they are, I doubt it. The poverty of their thinking never ceases to astound and disappoint me.

Posted by robalka | Report as abusive

China should be viewed as an ally and strategic partner, although we (the US) are in competition with the Chinese for resources in various places (Africa, the China Sea). However, we must hold their feet to the fire in relationship to Tibet, which should be treated as an independent territory and not subject to Chinese authority. When Obama yielded to Chinese pressure and would not meet with the Dalai Lama in D.C. this was a bad precedent. Previous Presidents would meet with the Dalai Lama and were probably blessed by his presence. Tibetan Buddist, Taoists and Christians shoul be allowed to practice their religion unmolested.

Posted by michaelhamrin | Report as abusive

Which China is this? Is it in an alternate universe? Ask the Tibetans if China has been peaceful with no intentions of taking over its neighbors. Many Japanese may be wondering where this peaceful China is too. Then, there are the Tiawanese who have always been threatened by some China not far away. What about the China that has supported North Vietnam and its warrior intentions? Or, the China that has supported North Korea since the start of the Korean War until this day? The families of a few thousand dead American soldiers will be surprised to learn that China only has peaceful intentions. A number of Asian countries now feel threatened by this “peaceful” China.

Isn’t there a China in this universe that has severely suppressed -including imprisnment and death – its own people for over half a century?

Peaceful?! How exactly do you define peaceful?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Oh, forgot to add: What about all the spying and espionage – both military and commercial – that China has been conducting in the United States for decades. “Chinese” missile technology is essentially American. Does this represent “peaceful intentions”?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

not “China as chaosmaker”?

Posted by Yotchy | Report as abusive

“Over two millennia, China has not attempted to conquer its neighbors or spread its system of government on any scale remotely comparable to the Romans, Mongols, British, Germans, French, Spanish, Russians, Japanese or even Americans.”

Tell that to the Mongolians, Vietnamese, Burmese, Tibetans, Turkics, Koreans or any other neighbour of China’s. Total rubbish claim. Even Vietnam used to stretch all the way to modern Day Hong Kong… Did they just pack up and leave thinking “Oh maybe the Chinese want to peacefully come here, lets let them have it!’.

Posted by Free_Pacific | Report as abusive

The author has staked out a courageous position here. There is no process internationally for conflict resolution. The impediment is the structure of the Security Council at the UN. It makes no sense for the US to play a role as arbiter in this case precisely because it is a party to the conflict. In fact the US has contributed to the current crisis by conducting war games with South Korea. So, it makes sense to explore options and for the US to step back. Ms cobbs Hoffman offers a reasoned, alternative perspective based upon solid historical analysis.

Posted by DavidHillstrom | Report as abusive

North Korea is communist China’s pitbull, just as Cuba was for the USSR in the western hemisphere.

As for historical borders, The People’s Republic of China was not founeded until after WWII. In fact it was the Chinese communists who set about destroying China’s historical archives, sites and artifacts. They are true believers that there is no history, no culture, no meaningful values and no authority above or superior to their party’s rule.

Posted by ajsfca | Report as abusive

The Fed Reserve is sued for violating Chinese Anti-monopoly Law by enforcing QE

Ms. Liu Hua, a Chinese lady at 58, charged the Fed Reserve System in Kunming city of China main land with intentionally abusing currency issuance monopoly power by enforcing four rounds of Quantitative Easing (QE) policies on March 19, 2013.

Ms. Liu alleges she deposited 250 dollars in a local municipal bank in Feb 2006. But with the Fed Reserve’s QE from 2009 through 2012, the real value of 250 dollars depreciates significantly both in China and in the United States.

In this antitrust complaint, Ms. Liu claims that the Fed Reserve is a private institution which monopolizes US dollar issuance. According to IMF, the US dollar is the main Foreign Exchange Reserve with more than 60 percent market share. According to anti-monopoly rules, the conduct of injecting trillions of dollars into the financial market by the Fed Reserve is apparently one of the abusive conducts of monopoly power, which inevitably devalues the dollars in circulation.

The plaintiff, pursuant to China Antimonopoly Law, requests the court: Enter a permanent injunction to prevent future violations of Chinese Anti-monopoly Law by the defendant; and Award the plaintiff one US dollar as damages.

Till now, the lawsuit, Liu Hua v. Federal Reserve, is submitted to the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court in the capital city of Yunnan Province, PRC.

Posted by LeeCheung | Report as abusive

There is no danger from North Korea. The pig-faced little fat boy in charge probably just got his grubby little fingers on an old copy of “The Mouse That Roared” and thought it was a great way to make some money.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive

The Chinese are free today because American troops died defeating the Japanese and liberating China from brutal Japanese occupation.

There are no blue-helmeted UN troops protecting the Korean border because the US prevented them from coming.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

“With a 2,200-year history of non-aggression, China is in the best position to take the lead”

This just shows how ignorant this author is.
She should also see history as it is told by other countries in Asia as well.

Having said that, China right now has the full capability to do a lot of ‘things’ and they don’t have a rigorous religion to give them good moral judgement . It is lucky for many countries in Asia that the communists are in power. They do a good job of refraining the other factions to some extent (remember, not all communists are the same)

I think if we are to come out of this crisis with minimum suffering, some kind of ‘communism’ is probably required to be part of the solution.

For starter, the ‘communists’ should focus more on the other core idea of communism : cooperation and no-conflict (ie co-existence) instead of redistribution and coercion.

That’s how I can see with my limited knowledge

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

Need to write a patch up comment here. It is hard to write something these days without being overanalyzed.

I did not mean to attack China in the above comment. Throughout the history of the world. Almost any country which became big and powerful enough would bully smaller ones to some extent.

And even when these things happen, there shouldn’t be any guilty by association because there are always people who disagree with action of others, want nothing to do with it, yet having no control over it.

.. just try to write down a few ideas based on the facts I know.. still very hard to do..

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

Oops, duplicate comment. I thought the prev one was missed because of connection reset.. so I have to retype

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

China much prefers to keep its prickly ally alive and well as a buffer between U.S. ally S. Korea and China proper. It may pull on the leash from time to time but not too hard.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive

A great sequel to your weightier suggestion that America should relinquish the role of global umpire. But I doubt China wants to be the global umpire, let alone try to boss around its neighbour from hell, North Korea. If push came to shove I suppose China could bomb North Korea to smithereens – China has always been good at seeing the big picture. As for China playing good cop to America’s bad cop, I think this is a strategy by default rather than design and I doubt China wants to associate itself with a bad cop. Sooner or later North Korea will have missiles to hurl at the US and we know that Reagan’s Starwars defence blanket was no more than aspiration/fantasy. Once suitably armed for long distance aggression, North Korea’s first soft option will be to attack South Korea. What then will the US, our present emasculated world umpire, propose or insist upon? China will just look inscrutable and hope that this comes across to North Korea as “don’t even think about messing with us”? It would be great to think that the US and China have a working relationship that can respond to this threat but, with politicians the way they are, I doubt it. The poverty of their thinking never ceases to amaze me.

Posted by robalka | Report as abusive

More patch-up comment.

By co-existence, I mean co-existence of countries of different culture and language protected by border at the global level, NOT multiculturalism. Multiculturalism will disintegrate whatever country short-sighted enough to embrace it.

Multiculturalism, I think was invented by the Jewish people since they don’t have a home land to live (Israel is too small), as well as other groups that have embraced the growth agenda.

Now the grow agenda people have run out of places and resources to live so they have to move into places of people who have moved forwarded into getting better agenda. In the past, this happened with expansionary military actions and wars.. now it is happening in a different way.

I think it is more fair, that people who embrace the growth agenda face the consequences of their actions by living with low standard of living and not cause problem to others by moving in and live with people who embrace ‘getting better’ agenda.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

I wanted to write even more patch-up comment, but then I realize whatever I write somebody always ends up being unhappy…

very very hard to say anything these days

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

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Posted by Wildblue Alpine | Report as abusive