Rhetorical Arsenal or Honest Rapprochement: China’s Taiwan Policy and Korean Reunification

By | May 27, 2013 | No Comments

ROC DoorwayChinese scholars like Shen Dingli frequently juxtapose Taiwan and Korea when it comes to the PRC’s security calculus. But surely there is more to it than that. SinoNK’s man in Kaohsiung, Mycal Ford, examines China’s policy toward unification with Taiwan and tries to extrapolate lessons or tendencies China may exhibit toward a Korean reunification.  — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Rhetorical Arsenal or Honest Rapprochement:  China’s Taiwan Policy as an Illustration of Chinese views of Korean Reunification

by Mycal L. Ford

As a major stakeholder in the Korean peninsula and its environs, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains concerned about the means by which a Korean unification could occur. Besides what Donald Rumsfeld might call the “known knowns” – a scramble to secure nuclear weapons (and supporting infrastructures, scientists, etc ), and a huge bill for whomever tries to clean up North Korea’s wrecked infrastructure –   there is the possibility of a steady stream of generally poor North Korean refugees making their way into China, a land with no need of more poor people.  There will, rightly, be a cry from the international community and concomitant pressure to accommodate the needs of these North Korean immigrants, thus straining a developing China. It thus seems obvious that a peaceful Korean reunification, one where South Korea could bear the brunt of North Korea’s alimentary and social needs, is in China’s  interest .

Or is it? If the DPRK and Republic of Korea (ROK) peacefully integrate with each other under ROK aegis, the United States presence in the Northeastern region of Asia has the possibility of dramatically increasing, either on the Korean peninsula itself or across the Japanese archipelago.  With the fabled American “pivot to Asia” in full swing, we need to ask: Is an increased presence of another hegemonic power (from Chinese viewpoint) within the same region in China’s interest? If not, then what are the Chinese views of Korean reunification? In hopes of gaining a fresh perspective and generating august discussion on the Korean peninsula, this analysis will extrapolate from China’s Taiwan policy to illustrate China’s views of Korean reunification.

Chinese spokeswoman

The Taiwan Case  On September 19, 2011, a spokesperson from the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) underlined the responsibility for both Mainland China and Taiwan to maintain the “1992 consensus.” This is a joint statement drafted in November 1992 by the Mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s Strait Exchange Foundation. The statement explicitly articulated that both parties ought to adhere to the One-China principle (一個中國政策/一个中国政策yī gè Zhōngguó zhèngcè). In other words, both sides agreed that there is one state which represents China, despite the two governments, and that “Taiwan independence” rhetoric is a direct repudiation of the “1992 consensus.”

As of late, China and Taiwan have made collaborative moves towards reconciliation. The most recent agreements include: Agreement on Medical and Health Cooperation, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, and Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights Protection and Cooperation, among others . These agreements, representing the recent history of cross-Strait interaction, symbolize a move towards slow and gradual reunification, with a tacit emphasis from both sides on maintaining or very slowly shifting the status quo.  The peaceful assimilation model, if you will.

As Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九), upon entering office in 2008, clearly stated, “under the principle of ‘no unification, no independence and no use of force,’ as Taiwan’s mainstream public opinion holds it, and under the framework of the ROC Constitution, we will maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”

It is likely that to shift from the status quo, as Ma’s predecessor had done, would either strain ties with the U.S or curb the prospects of positive interactions with Mainland China. As such, President Ma sought to maintain the status quo as the lesser of two evils. As a result, cross-Strait relations, arguably, have been at their most-stable under the leadership and tenure of President Ma. Understood in this way, China “knows” it is only a matter of time before Taiwan retrocession so patience and maintaining the status quo manages to neatly fit within China’s own interests .

Applying the Taiwan Case | What do Beijing’s own experiences with Taipei teach it about Korean unification?  Is it possible to compare the two cases?  No analogy is perfect, but there are enough similarities to divine some methodologies.  One difficulty arrives with the ever-unique case of North Korea.  Both the PRC and ROC have viable and vibrant economies. DPRK is currently accepting foreign aid from the U.S, China, and others.  DPRK  infrastructure is rustic and dilapidated where it does exist and the North Korean state may collapse somewhere between now and 20 years from now.   Moreover, the main points of contention between the Korean adversaries are fundamentally opposed in terms of which Korea represents all Koreans and which ideology should rule the peninsula.  Therefore there are only two realistic long-term outcomes:   reunification by means of diplomacy or the collapse of the DPRK regime .

If we assume the most likely cases: a DPRK regime collapse or reintegration by means of diplomacy, then there’s a high probability of Korean reunification is likely; that is neither will North Korea collapse into a Chinese state nor will South Korea spontaneously dissolve . However, such an outcome impacts China in two very different ways.  As scholar Fei-Ling Wang writes in his article, “Joining the Major Powers for the Status Quo: China’s Views and Policy on Korean Reunification”:

On the one hand, a unified Korea may create stability and peace on the peninsula over the long run, and may also serve as an important force countering Japan in East Asia. On the other hand, Beijing has a strong sense of uncertainty about the future of the U.S.-ROK military alliance, the political fate of the DPRK, and the fallout of Korean reunification. [1]

Despite constantly harping on the discordant notes of the Cold War, some still see the Korean peninsula as a dagger pointing at the heart and therefore having great geopolitical strategic importance. In the case of Taiwan as well as Korea, China’s goal is to prevent or mitigate foreign military influence.  However, only in the Taiwan Strait case is China seeking to establish itself as the main hegemonic power, as can be seen via the proximity to the South China Sea—extending its exclusive economic zones (EEZ).  With a newly christened aircraft carrier, China now has both the intent and the nascent capability to move from theoretical to practical.

While a unified Korea would likely create stability and peace in the long-term, China would certainly lose some influence if one half of its allies were to sublimate . China will claim the risk of a stronger U.S-ROK military alliance in the region could lead to the decline of current Chinese influence. However, the reality is it is ludicrous to think any country would launch an invasion of China from Korea – or any other neighboring country save Russia.  Such ways of thinking pre-date any Cold War and go back to the Spring and Autumn period or the Kanagawa-era.  Therefore, perhaps the most advantageous posture for China to assume would be similar to Taiwan–maintaining the status quo towards slow, gradual reunification while safeguarding its interests by mitigating the roles of regional players.

Conclusion | The Korean issue will continue to stoke much debate until it is resolved. In the meantime, North Korea shows few, if any, promising signs of emulating the Chinese lesson of pursuing peninsular integration by means of drafting agreements that slowly marry the two states. Reunification–both as ideological and representational—is best left as rhetorical arsenal than as slow and feasible steps towards rapprochement.


[1] Fei-Ling Wang, “Joining the Major Powers for the Status Quo: China’s Views and Policy on Korean Reunification,” Pacific Affairs 72 no. 2 (1999): 181.

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