Sunday, January 11, 2015

NK endgame: a quick thought

Let's say that war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. The armed forces of the two Koreas face off against each other, and America steps in on the side of the South. The big fear is: will China intervene militarily, beefing up the North and repeating 1950s history?

I'm going to risk a "no" to this question. Why? The main reason is money: as much as China is loath to have a US-style democracy right up against its border with Korea, I imagine China would be even more loath to let go of its death-grip on the scrotum of the American economy: America owes China untold billions in foreign-trade deficit, and you can be sure that, if the US and China were to declare war on each other, the first thing America would do is unilaterally proclaim its debt to China null and void, instantly strengthening the American economy (not that this would resolve problems inherent to the American economy, of course: until we learn to stop spending beyond our means, such trade-deficit problems will merely resume... not to mention that we already owe plenty of money to other countries, like Japan).

America's debt is, bizarrely, America's trump card in the event of war with China. It's a fiscal blow that would do incalculable damage to Chinese balance sheets and would have major repercussions for the Chinese way of life. From China's perspective, would such damage be worth the price of defending North Korea, an "ally" barely deserving of the name? North Korea has often failed to show China any appreciation for the support that China routinely gives it.

And would a unified Korea, now under a South Korean-style democracy and bordering China without the buffer of North Korea, really be such a horrible thing? China is already South Korea's largest trading partner, and it doesn't take a genius to see that trade with South Korea is much more beneficial to China than is trade with the often-prickly North.

So I don't see China swooping in to defend North Korea in the event of a war. At most, the Chinese will mass troops along their side of the border to prevent spillover. If significant numbers of Chinese troops die in that effort, then maybe the Chinese might get involved. But short of mass casualties, I don't see a peninsular-war scenario in which China plays a huge military role. Trade with South Korea, trade with America, and America's debt are treasures too precious to relinquish.



pitchfest said...

The ideological differences between the US and China are becoming less distinct and China's historical leverage with regards to its potential alignment with the USSR in matters of international dispute has also dissipated.
But that doesn't rule out the possibility that China would deploy troops to North Korea (using a pretext of humanitarian crisis) to ensure that its own geopolitical concerns were addressed. The Chinese citizenry may be becoming more educated and affluent, but the mindset of its communist regime can be deduced from its attitudes toward the South China Sea and Tibet, and its ambivalence toward the events in Ukraine and dictatorial regimes across the world.

So while the Chinese may have to pay a heavy price for intervention in the event of an NK collapse, I think it's a gamble they would take. Excellent diplomacy on the part of all countries concerned will be critical.

Kevin Kim said...

Could be... could be... much depends on how much the Chinese value money over dominion. China certainly has imperialistic designs on other countries. I often use China as an example of real imperialism versus whatever it is that America is so often, and tiringly, accused of. The Chinese swallowed Tibet without a qualm; they stare hungrily at Taiwan; they've put forward the Goguryo argument as a possible prelude to claiming North Korea as their own. There's certainly a case to be made that China is expansionist. But it's also got to know that its economy is rather precarious, and a war could easily destabilize it.