China as peacemaker
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