Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Robert Kaplan on China's Geographic Power over Korea

Quizzical Journalist

Robert Kaplan has a recent article that I first read in yesterday's Korea Herald, for it states something about China's designs concerning the Korean Peninsula, but which first appeared in the International Herald Tribune, where one can also read it: "The Geography of Chinese Power" (April 19, 2010). The portion that deals with things Korean is this:
Central Asia, Mongolia, the Russian Far East and Southeast Asia are natural zones of Chinese influence. But they are also zones whose political borders are not likely to change. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is different. No one really expects China to annex any part of the Korean Peninsula, of course, But although it supports Kim Jong-il's Stalinist regime, it has plans for the peninsula beyond his reign.

Beijing would like to eventually dispatch there the thousands of North Korean defectors who now are in China so that they could build a favorable political base for Beijing's gradual economic takeover of the region.
I do wonder how Kaplan knows that China would like to send "thousands of North Korean defectors" back to North Korea to "build a favorable political base for Beijing's gradual economic takeover."

Kaplan might be right, for all I know, but China isn't exactly following policies to endear North Korean defectors to its hegemony. It already sends defectors back to North Korea, where they face harsh interrogation and subsequent imprisonment in labor camps set up to starve prisoners slowly to death. Not such a grand strategy, that.

But to be fair to Kaplan's views on China's designs, we should read them in full. The IHT article is an abbreviated version of a far longer article appearing in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs -- "The Geography of Chinese Power: How Far Can Beijing Reach on Land and at Sea?" -- and the relevant passage is as follows:
Central Asia, Mongolia, the Russian Far East, and Southeast Asia are natural zones of Chinese influence. But they are also zones whose political borders are unlikely to change. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is different: the map of China is particularly truncated there, and there political borders could well shift.

The hermetic North Korean regime is fundamentally unstable, and its unraveling could affect the whole region. Jutting out from Manchuria, the Korean Peninsula commands all maritime traffic to and from northeastern China. No one really expects China to annex any part of the Korean Peninsula, of course, yet China remains inconvenienced by the sovereignty of other states there, particularly in the north. And although it supports Kim Jong Il's Stalinist regime, it has plans for the peninsula beyond his reign. Beijing would like to eventually send back the thousands of North Korean defectors who now are in China so that they could build a favorable political base for Beijing's gradual economic takeover of the Tumen River region, where China, North Korea, and Russia meet and which has good port facilities across from Japan on the Pacific Ocean.

This is one reason why Beijing would prefer to see a far more modern, authoritarian state develop in North Korea -- such a state would create a buffer between China and the vibrant, middle-class democracy of South Korea. But reunification on the Korean Peninsula would also eventually benefit Beijing. A reunified Korea would be nationalist and harbor some hostility toward China and Japan, both of which have sought to occupy it in the past. But Korea's enmity toward Japan is significantly greater than its enmity toward China. (Japan occupied the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and Seoul and Tokyo continue to argue over the status of the Tokdo/Takeshima islets.) Economic relations would be stronger with China than with Japan: a unified Korea would be more or less under Seoul's control, and China already is South Korea's biggest trading partner. Finally, a reunified Korea that tilted slightly toward Beijing and away from Japan would have little reason to continue hosting U.S. troops. In other words, it is easy to conceive of a Korean future within a Greater China and a time when the United States' ground presence in Northeast Asia will diminish.
This certainly puts Kaplan's statements into a far more coherent context, but my skepticism remains concerning his statement that "Beijing would like to eventually send back the thousands of North Korean defectors who now are in China so that they could build a favorable political base for Beijing's gradual economic takeover." I don't doubt that China has designs on the the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, but I see no evidence in Kaplan's article for his statement on the role of thousands of North Korean defectors.

I suspect that China would be more interested in influencing North Korea's technocratic elite within a stable state, but if the North begins to collapse, China might have a more forceful back-up plan.

But I defer to the experts on this . . .

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4 Comments:

At 8:06 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

Woefully off topic, I couldn't help but notice that Kaplan's face is highly assymetrical, a visual Lyle Lovett for global policy wonks and wannabes.

 
At 8:14 AM, Blogger pawikirogii said...

what's so interesting about all these predictions is the fact they never seem to consider how the koreans themselves will react to china's alleged ability to do whatever it want's to korea. tells me they don't know koreans.

 
At 8:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I noticed that, too, Sonagi, and wondered why he used that photo.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pawi, I also think that Kaplan underestimates Korean resistance to Chinese hegemony (though he acknowledges Korean nationalism), but I do worry about China's aims on the Korean Peninsula.

Jeffery Hodges

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