Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

February 20, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia

Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

As Cold War glaciers melt, Chinese-Korean tensions may grow more pronounced.

Beijing believes that because the rock lies on China’s continental shelf, it is included in China’s EEZ; hence South Korea’s occupation of Ieodo/Suyan is illegal. In 2009 Beijing submitted a claim to the UN for Ieodo in response to Seoul’s submission of its own 200 nm EEZ claim. In 2012 China State Oceanic Administration Director, Liu Xigui, declared the Ieodo/Suyan is within China’s jurisdictional boundary. The ROK Deputy Foreign Minister, Kim Jae-Shin, then met with Zhang Xinsen, China’s ambassador to South Korea. Kim stated that Ieodo was firmly under the control of the ROK, which would not tolerate any Chinese claim.

Beijing and Seoul have conducted sixteen rounds of negotiations in fruitless attempt to resolve the Ieodo/Suyan issue. Some analysts believe China seeks to delay resolution.

Riverine Disputes

China and the Koreas also have disputes concerning two important rivers that divide China from the Korean Peninsula: the Yalu and Tumen. Disagreements surrounding the Yalu date back to 1963. At this time, Pyongyang offered Pidan/Chouduandao Island, inhabited by ethnic Chinese, to Beijing to express appreciation for Chinese assistance during the Korean War. The arrangement unraveled, however, and China evacuated nearly 50 Chinese families from the island. In the same year, China gave 90 percent control of the Yalu River’s mouth to the DPRK in exchange for free-navigation rights.

Today, the Yalu’s mouth, which feeds Korea Bay, remains the primary source of contention. Pyongyang controls Shindo/Shin Island. Beijing desires control because this landmass could anchor transportation and communication vis-à-vis Bohai Gulf oil extraction. Precisely because of this strategic position, however, Pyongyang is unwilling to relinquish control. As of 2013, Yalu disagreements do not strain Sino-North Korean relations significantly. Chinese and North Koreans conducted their fifth joint Yalu patrol in April 2013.

The Tumen River, which feeds the East Sea/Sea of Japan, is more contentious. The river, and Chinese oceanic access, has a complicated history. In 1858, Russian imperial expansion forced China to relinquish its entire Siberian coast, including the Tumen’s mouth. The 1860 Treaty of Peking confirmed this, making the Tumen’s final stretch the first-ever Russo-Korean border. In exchange for Russian assistance to end Beijing’s occupation by British-French forces, it certified Russian ownership of 400,000 km2 of formerly Chinese territory, including along the East Sea/Sea of Japan and Sakhalin.

Beijing does have Tumen transit rights, however. Per an 1868 treaty, Moscow affirmed unconditionally Chinese ships’ right to transit the Tumen’s mouth and parallel Korea’s shoreline for 15 kilometers to Fangchuan, China—provided that Russia was pre-notified. Further complicating this issue was Japan’s engineering of Manchuria’s statehood in 1910, which gave Tokyo a Tumen River border, and helped precipitate the 1938 Japanese-Soviet conflict on the Zhanggufeng Plateau near Fangchuan.

Through quiet but comprehensive border negotiations (1987-2004), China formally accepted Russia’s jurisdiction over its former seacoast territories, effectively reinforcing multiple concessions from previous periods of weakness. The Tumen thereby offers China’s only East Sea/Sea of Japan access. Specifically, in 1991 that it was determined that the last 17km of river represents the North Korea-Russian border. In principle, Sino-Russian agreements from the 1990s and early 2000s give China “navigation rights to the final stretch of the Tumen.” Unfortunately for Beijing, while “Moscow and Pyongyang have never denied China this right, they have rarely shown any co-operative attitude either.” China is currently pursuing Sea of Japan access through DPRK ports.

Divergent Perspectives

Not surprisingly, Chinese and Koreans tend to view their disagreements very differently. Chinese experts believe Korean interpretations of Northeast Asian history are skewed. Experts from both Koreas believe China uses overly broad historical interpretations to claim territories that are clearly Korean. They worry China is pursuing its own domestic agenda of ethnic integration at the cost of its neighbors’ sovereignty. The relevant parties’ approaches to disputes tend to be informed by several major considerations.

China’s approach has arguably varied the most of all major parties involved, influenced by two major factors: (1) the nature of the disputes—whether they are land-based, sea-based, or cultural; and (2) the degree to which China faces domestic or foreign pressure at a given time. Related to the second spectrum, are China’s conflicting imperatives to engage in multiethnic nation building while simultaneously attempting to preserve good relations with neighbors in order to safeguard security and economic development.

Both Koreas’ approaches have been more consistent. Pyongyang prioritizes regime survival through secrecy, symbolism, and special relations with Beijing. Seoul employs cultural symbolism to construct national identity. Today, in parallel to China’s neighborly relations concerns, each Korea has a strong economic and security rationale to avoid severely damaging relations with China. North Korea, in fact, has restrained itself throughout these debates, in part because of Beijing’s extensive economic aid and political protection. South Korea has voiced concern about historical issues, but its government has avoided commenting officially on the Koguryo/Gaogeli dispute. China is the DPRK’s and ROK’s largest trading partner. Both Koreas must weigh this against multiethnic nation building, however; their respective identities hinge in part on being among the world’s most racially homogenous societies. Additionally, in some respects their calculus is simplified by China’s superior military power.

Differing Dynamics

The divergence in Beijing’s approaches to land and sea disputes is striking. China has settled its previously extensive land border disputes with all twelve of its continental neighbors save India and Bhutan. By contrast, it has not resolved territorial and maritime claims completely with any of its eight maritime neighbors. (Despite maritime tensions over the years, China and Vietnam did settle one island dispute in the 1950s, and subsequently demarcated the Tonkin Gulf.) In 2011, when asked by one of the authors to explain this disparity, an expert at CASS’s Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography stated that pre-1949 treaties had to be honored vis-à-vis continental neighbors such as Russia. By this logic, because no other states judged such agreements to be unfair, Beijing lacked redress. However, while Beijing resents all “unequal” treaties that it was forced to sign during the Century of Humiliation, its approach appears to vary based on strategic cost-benefit analysis. Through negotiations with Moscow, it relinquished claims to vast territories in order to obtain security, maritime focus, commerce, and technology deemed essential for development. While the expert failed to address the 1895 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki/Maguan directly, Beijing maintains that the 1945 Potsdam Declaration mandated return of all territories seized by Japan. Beijing thus perceives no treaty restrictions vis-à-vis maritime neighbors. Instead, it offers them “joint development,” but claims all sovereignty for itself—ignoring counterparts’ sovereignty claims deeply rooted in popular sentiment and coercing them when they respond.

A second major disparity in Beijing’s behavior lies in is its responses to internal and external threats. Absent internal threats to regime security, China rarely compromises in territorial disputes. In periods of high external threat, as M. Taylor Fravel documents extensively in his landmark book Strong Borders, Secure Nation, Beijing almost never compromises. As the United States and China engaged militarily during the Korean War and Washington pursued containment thereafter, China sought settlements in just two territorial disputes. Further, in the 1960s, when China split with the USSR and extreme military competition ensued, China did not attempt conciliation in any territorial disputes.

External threats have not affected Chinese behavior decisively with respect to its willingness to compromise in territorial disputes. From 1949-60, China had sixteen frontier disputes. Despite attempts from neighbors to resolve the claims, Beijing attempted compromise in only one. In the 1950s Washington pursued a containment strategy targeting Beijing after failing to wrest the entirety of the Korean peninsula from communist rule. The U.S. strategy involved an economic embargo against China and the formation of bilateral alliances. However, during this period of elevated foreign pressure, China did not cooperate in any disputes despite opportunities presented by neighbors (the sole exception being Burma). Rather, China delayed resolution of disputes until circumstances of political instability or internal threat arose.

The only time prior to 1960 where China attempted compromise on a frontier dispute was with Burma, in a process beginning in 1956. By 1960, China proved willing to submit to Burmese demands it had previously denied. The reason for this change was two-fold. First, China was able to use the agreement reached with Burma as a template for negotiations with India. Reaching an agreement with India would help China consolidate control over Tibet. Second, anti-Communist Nationalists had established bases in Burma; their activity increased with the Tibetan revolt. Accommodating Rangoon enabled Burmese cooperation against the Nationalists. Furthermore, Sino-Burmese dispute resolution in 1960 bolstered PRC stability in a way that was unnecessary three years earlier, when internal regime security threats were far less pressing. During the 1960s, Chinese leaders compromised repeatedly as internal threats to the regime arose.

A third factor in Beijing’s behavior is pursuing multiethnic nation-building and preserving neighborly relations—often contradictory. Concern with stability and regime security is linked in part to the multiethnic USSR’s dissolution and what some Chinese experts perceive as their nation’s similar potential for disintegration. To maintain stability, China emphasizes the unity of its many nationalities. The origin of attempts to claim all nationalities as part of a broader China dates to the chaos following the Qing dynasty’s collapse in 1911. Chinese scholars and politicians, in an effort to legitimize and consolidate power, then promoted the concept of “zhonghua minzu” (the Chinese nation). This archetype has subsequently represented a multiethnic yet cohesive Chinese state spanning several millennia. Beijing’s approach to the Koguryo/Gaogeli history controversy thus follows a larger pattern of Chinese attempts to maintain a multiethnic state. Yet China also values maintaining good relations with neighbors to promote security and thereby further economic development. Post-1978, to avoid further damaging Sino-Korean relations following major tensions, China has limited public statements concerning contentious Sino-Korean border issues, with the notable exception of the aforementioned CASS research project. Considering the nature of current Sino-Korean continental disputes, it is unlikely that China would choose to open itself to any territorial concessions, were a future united-Korea to press. Already, Beijing fears instability along the Sino-Korean border, which sustains even more illegal migration and human trafficking than the porous Sino-Burmese border.