As it has in much of 2017, the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is likely to haunt Northeast Asia for a good part of 2018. Beyond the immediate issue of Pyongyang’s weapons development is the interlocking nature of the conflict, which under certain circumstances—such as a decision by the United States to use force against North Korea—could spark other contingencies in the Asia Pacific.
The pivotal actor in all this is China, Pyongyang’s sole benefactor and a rising power in its own right, whose reaction to a U.S.-led war in the Korean Peninsula could determine the future of the entire region. This article does not aim to evaluate the merits, moral or strategic, of taking military action against North Korea to break the logjam. Instead, with the prospects of war seemingly becoming likelier, it looks at the potential repercussions of the Trump administration choosing the military option to resolve the impasse by presenting the problem as the continuation of a conflict, regional in nature, that began when the United States intervened in the Korean War in 1950.
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That conflict, which resulted in stalemate in 1953, is the moment when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “got locked into the same Cold War environment as the USSR in the eyes of the United States,” as Kerry Brown notes in China’s World: What Does China Want? While we can debate whether the Cold War between the United States and the USSR ever really ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union (“Eurasianism,” which Charles Clover describes in his excellent book Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism , suggests that it did not), it is beyond doubt that the ideological confrontation never ended in East Asia and has regained potency with the ascendancy of Chinese revisionism and its efforts to displace America as the hegemonic power in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s relationship with the Korean War is infused with a deep historical grievance stemming principally from the repercussions of that war, which led to the isolation and containment of the PRC. For Beijing, the chief symbol of that humiliation is the decision by U.S. President Harry S. Truman in June 1950 to deploy the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait to prevent the Korean conflict from engulfing the entire region amid indications that China had been preparing for an attack on the island. The neutralization of the Taiwan Strait drew an indelible line at sea that remains part of the conflict today. That same line, and its ramifications, was reconfirmed during the 1995–6 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis , when interventions by the Seventh Fleet once again humiliated the Chinese regime and arguably acted as the catalyst for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to launch an extensive program of military modernization. A product of an unfinished Cold War, the Taiwan Strait has become all the more problematic with the democratization of Taiwan and a deepening nationalism that vehemently opposes unification with the PRC. In Beijing’s eyes, however, both are the same thing—or at least, the outcomes are no different: continued American support for Taiwan, whether because it is a fellow democracy or due to its geographical location, is part of a strategy of containment.
The CCP therefore has not forgotten the humiliation of 1950 and the subsequent isolation of the PRC, of which a de facto sovereign Taiwan is a painful reminder. More than anything else, that symbol is something which the Chinese regime, arguably at its most hawkish and nationalistic since the Mao Zedong years, would like to obliterate.
I would argue, therefore, that a decision to launch military strikes against North Korea would represent the most dangerous period for Taiwan’s survival, as this could prompt Beijing to seize the opportunity created by the American focus on North Korea to resolve its historical grievance. In other words, rather than join Pyongyang in a direct (and potentially disastrous) military conflict with the United States, Beijing could use the distraction to launch its own military strikes against Taiwan, only this time with little likelihood that Washington would order the Seventh Fleet to interpose itself the way it did in 1950 and 1995-6. Already hampered by China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities , it is hard to imagine that the United States could spare sufficient capabilities to come to Taiwan’s defense at a time when it is undertaking major military action against North Korea—a daunting endeavor in its own right.
A war on two fronts in East Asia (North Korea and the Taiwan Strait) would pose a serious challenge to the American military. Russia, which with China shares an interest in eroding the United States’ global footprint, could furthermore assist China during a North Korean contingency by causing trouble in its own backyard, such as in Ukraine, and in the process overwhelm Washington by forcing it to address three simultaneous conflict scenarios.