Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Defining China's Interests

Over at the blog Basshole, Gar has an interesting post on his analysis of what the six nations involved in the six-party talks want.

Or should want.

Political analysis is often as much prescriptive as descriptive. Gar argues that for reasons both economic and military, but primarily economic, China should drop support for North Korea:

Though having North Korea as a buffer between them and the ever-expanding United States military presence in Asia has probably given [China] . . . some insulating comfort throughout the years, [the] reality is [that] China's economy relies greatly on all of its Asian neighbors and the United States too. A new arms race in their backyard does nothing for stabilizing anyone's economies, including their own. They can't afford to take the North's side in any future Korean War, as they'd have too much to lose economically, and would automatically be pitted against not only the US, but Japan and S. Korea to name a few, all economic powerhouses intertwined in the Chinese economy.

This type of argument is common in political analysis because it is so reasonable:

Country X will not pursue policy Y because policy Y is not in Country X's interests.

Unfortunately, we analysts don't often get to define how Country X sees its own interests. Occasionally, a Kissenger gets a powerful advisory role and can make his description prescriptive, or vice-versa, but this is pretty rare.

Gar's analysis is based on how he sees China's economic interests, but suppose that China sees things more from the perspective of long-term geopolitical interests. The future is hard to calculate, but the prize often goes to those willing to take risks, particularly if one has the patience to endure shorter-term losses for longer-term goals.

In the most recent volume (June 2005) of Issues & Studies, Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, "China, a Unified Korea, and Geopolitics" (Abstract, pdf), argue that China sees its interests in geopolitical and geo-economic terms that might even compel it to intervene militarily in North Korea. I've only skimmed the article, so I can't yet report on the details of their argument, but here's what they conclude:

This study has demonstrated that scholarly analysis of Chinese calculations toward the geopolictics of Korean unification has not been attempted in any sustained or systematic fashion. The findings above suggest that a united Korea would likely impose high geopolitical and geo-economic costs and risks (both perceived and real) on China. Consequently, Beijing is likely to be actively engaged in policy planning designed to keep the negative repercussions emanating from a united Korea to a minimuum. As such, U.S. policymakers cannot accept at face value China's professed openness to unification. Indeed, Washington should expect China to seek veto power over the fate of the Korean Peninsula, and it should view China's current, active particpation in multilateral efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis in this light.

More importantly, U.S. policymakers should anticipate that Beijing might feel compelled to use all of the tools of statecraft to induce Washington and Seoul to accommodate its strategic interests on the peninsula. It is even conceivable, if unlikely, that China would launch a limited military intervention in northern Korea in an effort to enhance its bargaining power over the future of the U.S. military presence. In short, the foregoing geopolitical analysis should spur Western policymakers to think ahead about China and Korean unification -- and to do so in geopolitical terms.

Note that they introduce their own prescriptive advice in the second paragraph: what the U.S. should do.

I'll need to read their article more closely, but it sounds similar to my own concerns about China. I see China as a resurgent great power with a long history as a great power. I think that the Chinese leadership is currently using nationalism to maintain the legitimacy that it might otherwise lose with the decline of communist ideology. Nationalism raises people's expectations, and if the Chinese come to believe, for example, that Goguryeo was Chinese territory (a fairly recent issue between South Korea and China), then they have grounds for arguing that, historically, the northern part of Korea is 'rightfully' Chinese land. I don't want to overemphasize this point, but it's part of the fuller picture . . . and perhaps a subtle indicator of China's fundamental attitude concerning the Korean peninsula.

I would like to think that the reasonable economic arguments are correct and that China will dump North Korea, but I worry that despite China's increasingly capitalist economy, we might not find that sort of 'bourgeoise' reasonability in its foreign policy.


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