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The new world order and China’s role in it

Attila Marjan

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Thirty years ago China’s share of world trade hovered below 1% but has increased more than tenfold since. Every year since the turn of the millennium, China has provided a quarter of the international economy’s annual growth.

China’s entering the mainstream of the global economy was symbolically completed when it became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. This added 800 million workers to the international labor force. China is now the biggest market and the biggest economy in the world. The West’s economy and political elite are forced to ride the shock waves caused by China’s rise. Western retailers source most of their stock from China. Millions of blue-collar workers have lost their jobs in the West as production is relocated to the Far East, and China’s huge untapped rural labor reserve will not run out in the coming decade. The entry of China and India into the global labor market reduced the global capital to labor ratio by 55 to 60%. This is the single most important ratio explaining the phenomenon we call globalization. The development of Chinese capitalism is fundamentally different from the previous British or American models though, where the technological innovations of their own inventors fuelled progress. China, on the other hand, imported ready-made solutions from the more developed parts of the world. China is also becoming an international financial power. It has become the leading holder of US Treasury debt and thus is now officially the American government’s largest foreign creditor. China has also accumulated the largest foreign currency reserves in the world.

In 1820, China and India combined accounted for about half of the world output, while Europe only accounted for 24% and the US only 2% (!). China only exported, the West – primarily Britain, the hegemonic power of the 19th century – imported. A huge global trade imbalance was accumulated to China’s advantage and China held an incredible amount of British silver. Today’s situation is surprisingly similar. In the 19th century this led to the opium wars and to the end of the once mighty Chinese empire. In 1978 China accounted for less than 1% of global GDP. What the West sees now is indeed the re-emergence of China in an incredibly fast way.

China’s middle class is expanding at an unheard of speed, and its wealthy few are becoming the wealthy many. Chinese society is undergoing rapid transformation, which alters people’s self-identity as well. A poll published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs[1] already in 2007 indicated that the Chinese believed that, in ten years’ time, their country will be just as powerful and influential in the world as the United States. At the same time the majority of Americans, Chinese, Indians and South Koreans polled were of the opinion that China would pull ahead of the US in the global race. Clearly China is no longer just an economic power but also a political force to be reckoned with, often flexing its muscles to further increase American unease.

The turn of the new millennium saw the emergence of new centers of gravity, often in the form of non-centralized conglomerates of states with large differences among them and without a single political will. The most important such center of gravity is South-East Asia, which has a growing influence on the global economy and world politics. With the boom in the Chinese economy, the slow but steady recovery of Japan’s economy, the reinvigoration of the “small tigers” and the strengthening regional roles of India and Australia, South and East Asia looks set to become the key focal point of the next world order. But with that role and power comes increased responsibility, in particular for the region’s leading country: China. Issues that have been considered domestic in nature — such as setting the yuan’s exchange rate, the efficient organization of the textile industry, health care reforms, better and more transparent governance or curbing corruption — will have a direct global impact.

As Asia rises, so does the West’s economic, demographic, political and military significance erode. The days of the global rules and institutions established by the West are numbered. Most Chinese researchers, politicians and even the man in the street are convinced that, things will soon be back to normal as China is becoming the world’s biggest economy just as it had always been until the beginning of the 19th century. (As late as the 18th century, China was the world’s largest trading nation, conducting one third of global trade, with India as runner up boasting one sixth of global trade.)

By 2015 the era of G7/G8 – in other words: the era of absolute Western domination with US hegemony – is over. The 21st century will refashion the global political order as well as the global financial world. The hegemony of the dollar — just as of the USA — will come to an end. International institutions need to be reformed. It is just absurd for Belgium to have greater voting weight in the International Monetary Fund than India. At the moment international organizations are functioning inefficiently and are on the decline, which is not surprising, as they are institutions of the post-war West-centered world.[2] We are living in an era of G20 but this seems only an interim solution. The question is what world order follows? Suggestions are plenty.

There is Robert Haass’s vision of a non-polar world order[3], more precisely a non-polar disorder, which is inevitably unstable in the long run. G3 is more of a Chinese idea. It is a multiple variable geometry in which different G3 setups can be envisaged (China, USA, Russia; China, EU, USA; China, Japan, USA) according to the needs of and relevance to the issue in question. G2 (a Sino-American tandem) seems for the time-being to be a weird animal to the Chinese. In 2009, some began talking about a G2 in the model of the G7, G8 or G20 and envisioned an Obama-Hu Jintao duo deciding the fate of the world. China was abashed by that talk of a G2 and was quick to deny any speculations about a bipolar USA-China world order. China has at least two problems with the G2 setup: for the time-being, it does not want to expose itself as a real global power nor wants it to be drawn too close to the US.

Chinese politicians and scholars treat the West’s loss of influence as granted, but there are people in China who worry about the possibility of America’s rapid decline. The more realistic observers in Beijing believe that America’s collapse (no matter how realistic this is anyway) would have disastrous implications, because China is not yet ready to build an alternative world order. Hence the objective should be to compel the USA to show more willingness to cooperate rather than bring it down.

“The rise of China is granted by nature. In the last 2,000 years China has enjoyed superpower status several times…China’s decline is a historical mistake which should be corrected” — the political scientist Yuan Xuetong wrote[4] in the Journal of Contemporary China in 2001, the year when the image of the USA’s invincibility was shattered. “Isn’t it possible that China, like all rising powers of the past, including the United States, wants to reshape the international system to suit its own purposes, commensurate with its new power?” Robert Kagan asked four years later in the pages of the Washington Post.[5]

China is preparing itself, trying to identify the weaknesses and strengths of its rivals. Its vast administration, including the army and intelligence services, is busy calculating, analyzing, generating strategies, and suggesting dos and don’ts for China’s rise. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is growing at breakneck speed and beginning to reshape the global market. Chinese foreign policy has restricted its attention to local, or at most regional affairs, but the isolationist, policy of the nineties is inappropriate in the 21st century. It is unclear whether China’s true character is soft power or hard power. They have been undecided for centuries, even though China has been involved in wars or armed conflicts with almost all of its neighbors. Chinese political leaders seem to be uncertain at this point how to define the future role of China in the emerging world order. It is indeed a major problem for the West that it does not see where China is headed; but it is even a bigger problem for the whole world that China itself does not know either. Having said this China is reinforcing its global security focus. Chinese President Xi Jinping already announced the setting up of the Chinese National Security Commission (CNSC). The CNSC has three major tasks.

– To advise the Politburo (which oversees the Communist Party) and the highest levels of the leadership on security strategy.

-To coordinate between different departments throughout the party, the government, the military, and society.

– To conduct crisis management and risk management, for both internal and external security threats.

In July 2015, the Chinese government passed a new national security law that will strengthen its role in China’s national security policy.[6] The Chinese Security Commission decided to establish high-level communication mechanisms with the US National Security Council as security issues between China and the US already affect the entire globe, and especially the Asia-Pacific region. The hotline proposed by China between the Chinese National Security Commission and the U.S. National Security Council is meant to handle emergency situations.

The transformation of the international order, the end of a hegemonic system, the appearance of a new power has often brought disaster in history. The only exception to this rule was the changeover of power between the British Empire and the United States in the 20th century, but this was a special case for two reasons. Firstly, the two nations were closely related culturally (in the broadest sense); secondly, that changeover happened during global wars in which the two Anglo-Saxon powers fought side by side. The map of the world is being redrawn again at the beginning of the 21st century. In a Huntingtonian world the birth of a new world order and the emergence of new global powers inevitably lead to a crisis or a global conflict. Zakaria and Khanna, two well-known analysts of current times are less pessimistic,[7] they talk about a world coming to terms with a natural multipolarity by the emergence of the second and the third world.

On a historical scale, America’s rise to global power status was extremely quick: on the eve of World War II the US Army was smaller than that of the Dutch but by 1944 America’s military output was double that of the Axis powers. The USA climbed to the top of the world with unprecedented speed and stayed there for a short century. In 2000 the United States was the strongest power in history, whose global supremacy was uncontested. Its budget showed a healthy surplus, its military might was unparalleled, its economic clout colossal. However, since 2001 the US’s global position weakened. There is a lot of discussion about the end of the US supremacy and also on why has America’s global dominance come to an end and how China found its way up? One obvious explanation is the dynamics of history: it is simply impossible to stop the emergence of new powers. If a civilization, culture, country or region can improve the efficiency of its economy, if it can put human, technological and financial resources at work in a massive way, and if the external environment is favorable, it will become successful. If this happens in a big enough country, it will become a world power. Another explanation is the mistakes committed by the United States: its misguided energy policy, its immensely expensive wars have not produced any tangible results but have emptied the federal coffers, eroded America’s international image and gave China the chance to build up its economy, diplomacy and military almost unnoticed by the hegemon. In the meantime the US economy has become dependent on China (and vice versa for that matter): what China produced the USA bought, and as a result China now holds trillions of dollars in US government bonds. The arrival of the turning point has been accelerated by the profound demographic and economic changes, the pace of globalization, 9/11, America’s military failures and the economic crisis. As the Japanese prime minister said at the end of an international summit in late 2008: “History teaches us that crises create new order.” The shift of geopolitical power towards Asia coincides with the end of a golden age of the West, which brought rapid growth, low inflation and considerable improvements in the standard of living, as well as with an economic crisis unseen in 60 years.

The American intelligence community[8] predicted a fundamental reshuffle of the world as we know it in the next few decades already a decade ago. The international order, as it was created in the wake of World War II, will be unrecognizable by 2025 — they say, adding that the pace at which wealth and political power will move from West to East is unprecedented in modern history. The world will become ever more dangerous, but richer at the same time, which does not mean that the majority of the Earth’s population will not face food and water shortages. Today’s oil powers may become tomorrow’s beggars, while developing countries and regions that build their economies on hard work will see stunning growth. The rise of the non-Western world, which began in the 1950s with Japan and continued in the ’60s with the Asian tigers, became a full-blown trend with the emergence of China, India and Brazil and will continue for decades.

It remains to be seen whether China’s rise will happen peacefully in the long run. The West is instinctively wary of geopolitical changes and knows also that dictatorships do not last long. Still, China needs peace in the world to be able to strengthen its economy, annex Taiwan at some stage and build an international order in which Asia and China play a central role. For the time being, China is not aiming at global hegemony or confrontation. Since the mid-nineties, China has been claiming to be a responsible, peaceful and cooperative partner of the West. A confrontation with America is unlikely to pay any dividends and is therefore not a realistic option. However it is encoded into Chinese culture that everything must have a counterbalance. A power without a counterbalance is unnatural and dangerous. Power must be balanced internationally without encroaching upon the independence or sovereignty of nation states. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Chinese hoped that the Cold War era would be replaced by a multipolar world order, and were disappointed to see the dawn of total American hegemony. China was shocked by the US intervention in Kosovo in 1999; bilateral relations were all but frozen, and China was afraid that the USA would use Taiwan and Japan to keep China at bay. This was the general view held by Chinese politicians and defense analysts at the turn of the millenium. But the world has changed immensely since then. Niall Ferguson talked about the end of Chimerica[9] – a marriage between the US and China in a completely intertwined economy where America consumes and China produces, China lends, America borrows, China exports, America imports. This cooperation was obviously a pretty problematic one therefore did not last for long. Both USA and China maintain strong suspicions of each other’s intentions. Accordingly, both sides are hedging their bets and securing their positions should relations deteriorate. As long as the question of Taiwan is not resolved peacefully and definitively, hostility between China and the USA remains a realistic risk. Nonetheless, as long as the USA does not pose a threat to its vital national interests, China is willing to tolerate the current global framework but with an ever-growing determination to gradually change it from inside.

According to Kissinger, the United States must be aware of its supremacy but act as if global security depended on all global actors. This strategy can divide the psychological burden of responsibility and will allow the principles of freedom and democracy to dominate international politics. In other words: share power to hold on to power. Kissinger believes that China, with four thousand years of history behind it, must know something about survival, hence the West should avoid being condescending. Kissinger is convinced that China’s rise will be the greatest challenge to the West as well as to China itself. Its political mentality, institutional culture and traditions do not predestine the US to accept easily the loss of its status as the world’s number one power and become one of many global actors. Also, for the US multilateralism has a different meaning and importance than to European countries and the EU. For America multilateralism is the means of achieving its end of a stable world order with the USA as the leading power. For Europe multilateralism is the end itself.

Having said all this, in 2015 US’s global military superiority is still beyond question. The US Navy commands a fleet bigger than the next 50 largest fleets together; America spends over a billion dollars a day on defense. The US economy is world leader not only in term of output but also in the use of cutting-edge technology. America’s intellectual and cultural impact — from Harvard through Hollywood to McDonald’s — is the biggest soft power in the world. Not to mention the fact that the USA is not a status quo power, America is not afraid of change. Apart from its unwavering faith in democracy and in its own specialness, its embrace of change is one of its key distinguishing features.[10]

The rise and reinforced international profile of China and Asia poses some inconvenient but crucial questions for the West. As Asia rises and Europe stagnates, an overhaul of international organizations naturally seems inevitable, however difficult that may be. The French president suggested that India should be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but when the possibility of the EU being given a single seat on the Security Council (instead of the two currently held by France and the United Kingdom), he called it very unlikely that the EU — which has trouble agreeing on much less contentious issues — could find consensus on such a sensitive and crucial question.

What guaranteed the prosperity of the West, apart from its military might, was that the world order that emerged in the wake of World War II was shaped by Western ideas, rules and values. Global politics undergo seismic shifts the global order is realigned and the global value set might also be rearranged to a certain extent. This latter is much less talked about but equally important – in the long run, certainly. We are witnessing not only the competition of economies and military capabilities but of values as well. And what we experience is a new phenomenon: the rise of alternative values and institutions in the world in parallel with a certain level of democracy fatigue even in the West.

In parallel with the global power reshuffle new social models are appearing. These new societal models are not hybrids combining elements of Western society. They tend to be forms of state capitalism or non-liberal (pseudo) democracies, where elections are held regularly but a populist elite rules the country nonetheless. Many developing countries go through this stage in their development; the question is whether they will be able to move on and turn themselves into real democracies. At the same time Western liberal democracy shows signs of ageing and becoming rickety as cowardly political elites motivated only by polls discredit democracy altogether. Postmodern politics is drifting towards dim-witted media politics.

Does China’s rise really mean that the universal expansion of the Western world and of liberal democracy have come to a halt? When China broke with dogmatic communism and opened itself up to the world, it spent three decades adopting Western principles, particularly in the areas of foreign and economic policy. China is opening a new chapter: it wants to create a new model of its own, which can become an alternative to the Western model and will surely be popular in all countries that have a dislike for the American dominated Western world order. When the “Chinese model” crystallizes it can offer the developing world (Africa, Latin America and the Middle East) an alternative to the Western liberal model. The new China does not only rebuff the West-dominated present, it also rejects eurocentric historiography and the eurocentric worldview as false and distorted, because — it claims — these advocate the global supremacy of Greco-Roman culture and underplay the world’s oldest culture (i.e. that of China).

The fact that autocracy and state capitalism seem to prevail and flourish in the biggest country in the world is a powerful signal for many countries. There are speculations that the global system might soon have a viable Third Way (as opposed to the Western and the clear cut third world dictatorship models) which could be a desirable option for many Asian and African countries in the 21st century. It is not a certainty though. But if democracy is challenged by a strong and vivid alternative model on the global scale, remilitarization and old-school power politics could come back into fashion. China will have a responsibility as regards how to tackle these developments and their consequences in the long run.

Francis Fukuyama asks[11] in 2010 whether liberal democratic principles are really universal or have been revealed not to be. His answer is that they are universal – but this is not as sure as it was a decade ago. He asks what the democratic world can do with Putin’s transformation of Russia into an ”electoral authoritarian” state, the undermining of democratic institutions by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the rise of China as a successful authoritarian modernizer. Are these systems true and viable alternatives of old-fashioned democracy? They are most probably not in the long run, but liberal democracy is not the only alternative to all-out dictatorship in worldwide politics anymore. As he puts it: “The next phase of global history will be a challenging one, as America and Europe stumble to get back their economic balance. It seems doubtful that either the US or Britain will achieve the degree of growth in the next generation that they did in the previous one. But one of the great advantages of democracy is that it does not depend for its legitimacy on continuing high levels of economic growth, as the Chinese system does. As we move forward, it is important to keep in mind the simple power of the idea of a government by, for, and of the people. We need to match those high ideals with unglamorous but steady investments in institution-building if liberal democracy is to deliver on its promises.”

Robert Kagan says that ideology still matters in geopolitics, and one should add perception as well to ideology. China’s strength comes partly from the fact that the world sees it as strong, the future great power. At the same time, part of America’s weakness stems from the fact that it sees itself as a declining power[12]. A change in these perceptions could cause significant shifts in times of uncertainty and global transition. Is China potentially an even bigger a power than we imagine or – as Ari Van Assche puts it – does the West only make a dragon out of a dragonfly[13]?

China is changing geopolitics, surely. Is China going to change the rules of the game? It is doubtful, but this is still a puzzle to the Chinese themselves. China might as well be much less powerful as it seems, based on a shaky “Leninist corporatism” whose development is completely based on stealing know-how and institutions from the West as Will Hutton points out.[14]   But there is a high probability that reality will prove otherwise.


[1]Chicago Council on Global Affairs: World Public opinion, 2007.

[2]Zhao Kejin concludes that “today it seems that EU states are taking a case-by-case approach toward China’s initiatives to constructively reform the Bretton Woods system. They tend to support reform of the international monetary order, thus accepting RMB’s inclusion in the SDR, yet they are not committed to sharing governance of the old institutions, as this would limit European influence and prestige.” In: China’s National Security Commission. Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. July 14, 2015.

[3]Robert N. Haass: The age of non-polarity – What will follow US dominance. Foreign Affairs. May/June, 2008.

[4]Yan Xuetong: The rise of China in the Chinese eyes, Journal of Contemporary China, 2001, Vol. 10.

[5]Kagan, Robert: The Illusion of managing China. Washington Post, 15 May 2005,.

[6]Kejin, Zhao: China’s National Security Commission. Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. July 14, 2015.

[7]See more in Khanna, Parag: The second world – empires and influence in the new global order. Random House, New York, 2008. and in: Zakaria, Fareed: The post-American world. W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 2008.

[8]According to the Global Trends 2025 report.

[9]Ferguson, Niall – Schularick, Moritz: “Chimerica and global asset markets”. 2007. and “The end of Chimerica”. 2009. Harvard Business School. Working Paper 10-037.

[10]A small note: things in the balance of the international order can change unnoticed and sometimes scholars and politicians got carried away by perceptions of visible trends while obviously disregarding the ones less obvious. One good example is the surprise at the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his book (My Country, My People) published in the US in 1935 Lin Yutang described China as a tired old man (in comparison with the dynamic, youthful West.) Some seventy years later my book on the future of Europe bore the subtitle: “The Old Lady and the Bull” (a reference to ancient Greek mythology) describing Europe as an old lady instead of the young girl who she used to be when she had been taken by Zeus disguised as a bull. Probably both of us were right at a certain moment in time, but the lifespan of truths in geopolitics seems to get shorter and shorter.

[11]Is the Age of Democracy Over? Spectator. February 10, 2010.

[12]An example: According to a 2009 survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, 81% of Chinese think the USA will stay ahead of China in innovation, while 41% of Americans think so. (in Newsweek, 28 November 2009.)

[13]Van Assche, Ari: Are We Making a Dragon out of a Dragonfly? – Understanding China’s Role in Global Production Networks. Burgundy Report, CIRANO Network, 2009RB – 03. January 2009.

[14]Hutton, Will: The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face it as an Enemy. Free Press/Little, Brown.

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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East Asia

Why does the Dragon do what it does

Moaaz Awan

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The recent stand-off between China and India has been the headlines around the world, especially since the stand-off went ugly with 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number (probably less than 20) Chinese soldiers losing their lives in a vicious hand to hand combat. Since then, nationalistic sentiments in India are running high with immense public pressure to account for the Chinese for what happened in Galwan Valley. In order to understand the motives behind the recent clashes, one has to go back to 1962 or even before that.

This is not the first time that tensions along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) have flared up and definitely this is not the end of such events. Strategically, what was true in 1962, is true today. The real bone of contention is still Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is the Dragon’s hanging sword on Delhi, which can be unleashed anytime keeping India continuously in a state of passive defensive. As long as China adheres to its strategy on Aksai Chin, it will always have the strategic initiative, and India’s “great power ambition” will continue to lay in the abyss of the Indian Ocean.

Aksai Chin indeed was a part of the State of Kashmir but since Kashmir already was being fought over between India and Pakistan and the region being far from both India and Pakistan was inaccessible to both claimants. Beijing saw an opportunity and with tacit approval from Pakistan, went ahead to control this “Sand Sea of China” which is the literal translation of Aksai Chin in Turkic.

Aksai Chin is strategically very important for China. It is the only possible land route that connects China’s Xinjiang Region to Tibet. China’s G219 Highway and the New Tibet Railway Line both pass through Aksai Chin. If there was not to be an Aksai Chin, the Chinese had to cross the hard terrain of the Kunlun Mountains to connect China’s two big landmasses. In 1962 when China took the initiative to cross the LAC, Beijing had several things on its mind. Firstly, it had to secure Aksai China so that a land link between Xinjiang and Tibet can be established. Secondly, China knew that controlling the heights over India is going to give it a long term strategic advantage and through it, it could always keep the initiative in its hands, keeping Delhi in a defensive position for an unprecedented time in the future. Thirdly, it wanted to support Pakistan which was having its own problems in the Kashmir sector. In case of any future Indo-Pak conflict, China would be in a better position to intervene. Lastly, and most important of all, Beijing wanted to ensure no future disturbances along the LAC. The main objective of the 1962 War was made very clear by Chairman Mao at the Xiangshan meeting: “At least 30 years of peace must be guaranteed.”

One may wonder that what does thirty years of peace do. What merited the risk of crossing over the LAC by the Chinese? The answer is rather simple: Integration of Tibet! Tibet was having internal problems and especially after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet it was getting harder for Beijing to keep it under control, but that couldn’t be possible unless and otherwise New Delhi would be completely knocked out of the Tibetan game and this is exactly what the 1962 War did.

Some analysts believe that instead of focusing on Aksai Chin which is a rugged piece of land, China should’ve gone for the Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call “Southern Tibet”. The area is also much richer in natural resources than Aksai Chin. The point made then by Beijing was that Arunachal Pradesh was a more difficult terrain to be defended plus the aim was to stabilize the whole of Tibet, instead of just Southern Tibet. Another interesting reason why Beijing kept mum about Southern Tibet was that it was the “Granary of Tibet”, the absence of which meant that Tibet had to rely on Beijing for its basic necessities. Another well-calculated move by Beijing to reign in Tibet.

All along the 1962 War, Beijing was clear of its objectives. It was not expansionism that drove the war but rather strategic interests. The war was initiated by China, and China itself took the initiative to end it. It was clear to the Chinese planners that any War with India had to be swift, decisive and must set the tone for future engagements. That is why after the PLA took over control over large swathes of land across the LAC and the “McMahon Line”, then quickly retreated back to the “McMahon Line”. Since the battleground is usually too cold for battle, the PLA had only a two-month window to launch an offensive

Prior to the war, at the Beijing Xiangshan meeting in which it was decided to fight the 1962 War, Zhou Enlai specifically instructed that “logistics must be done well, and we must never increase the number of casualties due to logistical factors like in the Korean War.”

Learning on the lessons of 1962, India unilaterally decided not to build any infrastructure in the region surrounding the LAC, fearing that the same infrastructure might be used by the Chinese to come into the Indian mainland. Since now New Delhi is ascertaining its regional and global power, it is constructing new roads and infrastructure along the LAC and China is clearly not happy with India changing the status quo. Previously, the status quo maintained gave Beijing a strategic advantage. One border issue had pinned India for decades, wasting a lot of India’s national power, and has allowed China to develop with peace of mind for decades.

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Escalation of conflict between two Koreas: Why now and what could it lead to?

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Observers worldwide signal a rapid deterioration of relations between two Koreas which began on June 9th, after North Korea’s authorities discontinued contacts with South Korea over the anti-Pyongyang leaflets circulated by North Korean defectors. While Seoul has announced readiness to take measures, the other party chose to ignore the announcement.

Pyongyang has blocked all communication lines with Seoul (except those between special services). North Korea has also blown up the building of the inter-Korean communication office in Kaesong, which was opened in 2018 for promoting cooperation between North Korea and South Korea. This is a precedent which sets one thinking: why is all this happening now and what could it result in?

Throughout the past few decades Pyongyang has repeatedly resorted to the “slam the door” tactic according to which it first broke contracts and then resumed them. There was a time when the participants in inter-Korean talks threw cookies at one another during a coffee break in a manifestation of mutual resentment. But no one blew up buildings.

Significantly, the measures in question have been reported by Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong, who described South Korea as a «foe». Deputy head of the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Korean Labor Party, this pretty-looking lady with good manners were originally appointed to represent the North Korean regime with a “human face”. Now, she is playing the part of a “bad cop”.

So, why is it all happening now? The year 2020 began with radical changes about American-North Korean denuclearization talks, which ran into a deadlock. North Korea repeatedly voiced discontent over the US not lifting sanctions against Pyongyang and not calling off military exercises with South Korea despite the fact that North Korea has stopped nuclear tests, frozen intercontinental ballistic missile launches and closed nuclear testing sites. In response, Pyongyang chose to raise negotiation stakes by saying ‘no’ to talks on the lifting of some UN-imposed sanctions in exchange for major nuclear facilities of North Korea.

Apparently, North Korea considers it possible to repeat the same tactic in its relations with the South, which have been stalled, largely over the coronavirus pandemic.  Despite Pyongyang’s expectations, North-South relations cannot enter the specific cooperation phase, first of all, over the  position of Washington, which has been doing everything to thwart it.

When a chess game enters a deadlock, the angry party, like in the Ilf and Petrov classic, is tempted to overturn the chessboard, or worse, to crush it on the head of the other party. This is the logic that the North Korean party could be driven by at the moment; such a behavior seems quite sensible, because it has yielded good results many times before. The question is why torpedo the inter-Korean dialogue now, under President Moon Jae-in, who is widely known for his commitment to the  North-South dialogue and has done a lot to promote it (and must have been getting ready to do more, thereby earning a credit for himself in history before he steps down from the post of president in 2022)?

It is not a secret that this dialogue has limits which are imposed by American-South Korean alliance. Since the North has always been against them, the current escalation could well be part of an attempt to “blow up” the existing system (or, at least, rock it out of balance). But this kind of move is hardly sensible and hardly feasible.

What will the current escalation which the North has been demonstrating so openly (“seven people hold me, or I break loose and crush everything”), lead to?  What sounds alarm is Pyongyang’s intention to deploy troops in areas which have been deemed as demilitarized since 1953, when North and South Koreas signed an armistice agreement. After that the two sides saw a number of intermittent setbacks but they never touched the border zone in the 38th parallel. Seoul and Pyongyang never attempted to reconsider the zone’s demilitarized status.  A violation of this “taboo” is fraught with danger – it could cause unintended military incidents on the demarcation line, particularly considering the fact that the 38th parallel has the world’s biggest concentration of military power and weapons.

Finally, what are external players to do? The UN secretary-general has urged the United States and South Korea to take joint efforts to normalize inter-Korean relations. After that the State Department issued a corresponding statement which ran into a rebuke on the part of North Korea. The day before the Trump administration extended sanctions against North Korea for another year, and the circle has been closed.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Russian State Duma coordinator for cooperation with North Korea Kazbek Taisaev have expressed hope that peace will be preserved. But this is not enough. Russian and Chinese diplomats have been acting in line with a consolidated position of China and Russia on the situation around the Korean Peninsula, which was enshrined in the Joint Statement of the two countries’ foreign ministers of July 4, 2017. Action for action, a step-by-step lifting of sanctions depending on progress at the talks is what Russia and China propose for a settlement. This principle, however, proceeds from the fact that North Korea is interested in such progress, not vice versa. For this reason, our countries’ foreign ministries may have to streamline their strategy with a view to make it easier to implement and boost its effectiveness.

From our partner International Affairs

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Will There Be an End to the Korean War?

Gleb Ivashentsov

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The Korean War began 70 years ago, on June 25, 1950. This was not just a standoff between neighboring states. The Korean War, in fact, began as a civil war between the two Korean camps (the North, that sought to build the future of Korea according to the Soviet model, and the South, committed to American attitudes). In the context of the Cold War, it immediately developed into a large-scale military conflict. Great powers were directly or indirectly involved. This includes the USA, Great Britain, USSR, PRC, as well as the UN, which sent an international military contingent to Korea under its own flag to help the South.

Military Confrontation on the 38th Parallel

The inter-Korean confrontation continues to this day. Today, on both sides of the 38th parallel — the latitude line that roughly demarcates the two Korean states — military fortification is piled up, and thousands of troops with modern weapons and military equipment target each other. Moreover, in accordance with the Mutual Defence Treaty between the U.S. and South Korea, the latter is hosting a group of U.S. troops of 28.5 thousand people, subordinate to the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC).

And if Seoul does need the U.S. military presence in Korea in order to protect South Korean economic prosperity from the hypothetical encroachment of Pyongyang, then for Washington, it is only an element of the global system for ensuring “American leadership.” The Korean Peninsula is the only continental element of the U.S. military presence in East Asia. In addition, South Korea, as an ally of the United States, significantly strengthens American military power in the Pacific, doing so to a much greater extent than Japan, still fettered by Article 9 of its Constitution.

Nuclear Issue

In the 1990s, the tangle of security problems on the Korean peninsula was supplemented by the North Korea nuclear crisis. North Korea, in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, announced the development of a nuclear missile program. Pyongyang remembered the calls of the American General Douglas MacArthur, who led the United Nations Command in the Korean War, to use the atomic bomb, and believed that the DPRK’s own nuclear weapons could prevent a potential strike from the United States in the event of a new inter-Korean war.

The United States confronted the North Korean nuclear missile program with a sanctions war and aggressive military rhetoric. This included direct threats of President Trump in 2017 to physically destroy the DPRK should it decide not to give up nuclear missile development. However, common sense prevailed. Mutual accusations gave way to dialog. Three inter-Korean and two North Korea-the U.S. summits took place in 2018–2019.

Inter-Korean Dialog

Inter-Korean dialog was facilitated by two circumstances. On the one hand, having created long-range nuclear missile weapons, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un decided that the main strategic goal to ensure the security of the DPRK from the United States had been achieved, and that the nuclear-missile race could be suspended by putting more funds into economic needs. On the other, it was the behavior of South Korea that promoted a thaw in the relations. And this is not only due to the fact that from the very beginning, the current President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, went to the polls under the slogans of restoring dialog with Pyongyang. The aggressive rhetoric of Donald Trump in 2017 regarding the DPRK also played its role. For the first time in several decades, the world was faced with the real threat of a new war on the Korean Peninsula at the initiative of the United States. South Korea would be the main victim of it, suffering a powerful blow from the North. Therefore, if Washington’s victory in the war would be the liquidation of the North Korean state in its current form, then for Seoul, the only option for victory would be to prevent the war.

There were a lot of expectations from inter-Korean summits. But these expectations were only met, perhaps, by the fact that there will be no nuclear or other war in Korea in the near future. The declarations adopted in Panmunjom and Pyongyang by Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in set a number of tasks to promote cooperation between the two Korean states. However, for the most part, these documents looked more like statements of intent. Many political and legal obstacles stood in the way of fulfilling these intentions.

Therefore, the inter-Korean dialog that pompously started in 2018 began to stall by the end of 2019. At the beginning of June of the current year, it even reached a dead end. Under the pretext that the South Korean authorities did not prevent various public organizations from sending balloons with leaflets wording the attacks on the North Korean regime, Pyongyang blocked all communication channels with Seoul. In addition to this, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who now oversees relations with the South and, in general, has practically become the second most influential figure in the DPRK power structure, promised Seoul to destroy the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in the near future (which was done — Ed. note.), the next step to be made by the military of the North.

The point was not, of course, in sending the balloons with leaflets to North Korea, especially since many of them had not reached the DPRK. The reasons go deeper. On overcoming the coronavirus pandemic, the DPRK economy is in dire need of economic support, and Pyongyang makes it clear that they are dissatisfied with Seoul’s lack of any steps aimed at restoring inter-Korean economic cooperation. This was stipulated by the agreements reached at the summits of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. This is primarily about the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Kumgangsan tourist region. The KIC, located in the DPRK near the border with the Republic of Korea, was the largest and most successful inter-Korean project. It housed the production of more than a hundred South Korean small and medium-sized enterprises, which employed about 50 thousand North Korean workers. By 2015, through the work of the Kaesong complex, inter-Korean trade turnover reached USD 3 billion, which made South Korea the second most important trading partner of the DPRK after China. The Kumgangsan tourist region was open to South Korean citizens for ten years, from 1998 to 2008. During this time, almost 2 million South Koreans could visit it, giving the DPRK government an additional source of income.

Pyongyang seems to be counting on the large victory of the ruling Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections in South Korea in April this year, which might create new prerequisites for restarting the inter-Korean peace process. This is all the more since immediately after the elections, the Office of President Moon Jae-in stated that normalization of relations with Pyongyang remained a priority for the country’s leadership and the resumption of negotiations between the North and the South might occur in May-June.

However, the initiator of rapprochement with the North, President Moon Jae-in, found himself in a critical situation. The most important asset of his party in the elections was not an inter-Korean settlement program, but the successful actions of the South Korean authorities in the fight against the pandemic. Now that the unrest around the pandemic has more or less subsided, the economic problems in the country, aggravated by the pandemic and corruption scandals involving people close to Moon, are again coming to the fore in the public consciousness of the South Koreans. So today, the President of the Republic of Korea is clearly not up to talking with Pyongyang.

The pressure of the big ally certainly plays its role. Before the results of the U.S. presidential election, Washington will not only be unable to take any action on the Korean vector, but will also disallow Seoul to take the initiative.

Do all of Korea’s Neighbors Want the Reunification?

In the current alignment of forces near the Far Eastern borders of Russia, the establishment of Korea as a single independent neutral and nuclear-free state would be in its interest. The question, however, is that at this stage, neither North nor South Korea is ready for reunification. The partners of the two Korean states are not ready for this either.

Seoul is concerned that reunification will come at a very high cost, pulling it out of competition at the regional and global levels for a long time. Pyongyang, in turn, does not intend to surrender to the South. They examined the experience of Germany, where the capitalist West brought the socialist East to heel, making former GDR citizens “second-class” and subjecting members of the former East German power elite to all kinds of persecution, including imprisonment. The new young generation of the North Korean elite is actively blending in with the emerging North Korean business under Kim Jong-un. We have already seen something similar in Russia. Both of these classes — the current military party elite and the North Korean nouveau riche — have a vital common interest in preserving a separate North Korean statehood. The unification of Korea under the leadership of Seoul is equally dangerous for both, because in this case, the elite will lose power, and local business will simply be crushed by the South Korean chaebol monopolies.

As for the United States, it is not really in its interest to have Korea reunited rather than having status quo on the Korean peninsula, maintaining tensions there. This is the most convenient way to keep and, if necessary, strengthen the U.S. military-political presence in Northeast Asia.

China is considering the alignment of forces on the Korean Peninsula primarily through the prism of its confrontation with the United States. Beijing will support the reunification of Korea only if it is sure that a united Korea will be pro-Chinese. There is no certainty about this: Korea, united under Seoul conditions, will, at best for China, become a powerful independent state with strong ties to the United States, and at worst, like Japan, the outpost of Washington’s deterrence of China in the region.

The Japanese, in turn, say that the main question for them is who will get the North Korean nuclear weapons. Tokyo will support the reunification of Korea, only being sure that these weapons are destroyed or withdrawn. In fact, the Japanese are simply afraid of the emergence of a united Korea as a powerful competitor in the regional and world arena, similar to the way England and France tried to delay the unification of Germany in the late 1980s.

Therefore, speaking about the reunification of Korea in the current conditions is at least premature. It should be a matter of inter-Korean reconciliation, building bridges between the two Korean states.

Trump and Pyongyang

In 2018 Donald Trump’s transition from the threat of a military attack on Pyongyang to a dialog with Kim Jong-un was largely forced. Both the insistence of South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the issue of inter-Korean detente and the general international attitude against the risk of a nuclear war against North Korea played a role. Special attention should be given to, firstly, the “road map” for settling the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula put forward on July 4, 2017, by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Russia and China. And, secondly, to the unwillingness of the U.S. allies to engage in new American adventures in Korea, which was clearly shown in January 2018 at Vancouver meeting of the foreign ministers of those states whose troops fought in the Korean War of 1950-1953 on the side of the South as part of the so-called UN forces in Korea.

In dialog with Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un voiced the new relations between the DPRK and the U.S. as the main condition for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. These relations should be based on mutual trust and free from mutual demonization. It is clear that this is not an easy task for Pyongyang and Washington. But there are examples of how similar challenges were solved in due time in China-the U.S. and Vietnam-the U.S. relations. The future relations of the DPRK and the U.S. could reach the level of today’s communication between Vietnam and the U.S., when they still remember the war, but the memory of the past does not prevent them from working together in the present.

Pyongyang could stop the development of ICBMs, freeze the production of nuclear materials, and open its nuclear facilities for international inspections. And Washington, in return, would officially recognize the DPRK, establish diplomatic relations with it, exchange diplomatic missions, limit military activities at its borders, reduce and ultimately lift sanctions, and provide economic and energy assistance to the North.

The problem, however, is that at least for the coming year, any progress in the U.S.-North Korea dialog is ruled out. Trump is concerned about preparations for the presidential election, the extremely unfavorable situation in the country due to racial unrest, and not about Korea. Both now and in case of winning the elected position, there will be more important issues — China, Europe, Russia, the Middle East. Korea will not be among the U.S. foreign policy priorities even if Biden wins the election (all for the same reasons).

Inter-Korean Reconciliation Matter is in the Hands of Koreans Themselves

The main result of the inter-Korean summits was Seoul being reconciled with the existence of the DPRK and adopting the policy of peaceful coexistence with respect to it. The urgent need for the Republic of Korea today is to recognize the status of the DPRK as a sovereign state, the rule of law and constitutionality of its leadership, and shift the relations between the two Koreas into a bilateral format.

The UN is called upon to play its role in this situation. It has been dealing with the “Korean issue” from the moment it arose in the late 1940s. Yet after the approval of two resolutions on this issue at once during the 30th session of the General Assembly in November 1975 (one initiated by the USA and the other by the USSR (both remained unfulfilled)), it basically removed the issue of a political settlement in Korea from the agenda.

First of all, it is worth changing a completely unnatural situation when, formally it is not the Republic of Korea, that is in the military confrontation with the DPRK, but the UN. To assist South Korea during the Korean War, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution No. 84 of July 7, 1950, the United Nations Forces in Korea were created — the multinational armed forces of 16 states led by the United States. Since these forces participated in the Korean War under the UN flag, and the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on the behalf of these forces opposing the Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteers (and in fact on behalf of the UN), the latter is still formally at war with the DPRK, that since 1991 is a full member of the UN.

It is time to adopt the UN Security Council declaration and to declare that the Korean War was a page of the past, that the UN Security Council turns this page and, accordingly, there is no need for the UN Command in Korea.

As for the American troops in South Korea, their presence should be regulated exclusively by interstate agreements between the Republic of Korea and the United States. In this case, it would be worthwhile to decide on the issue of Operational Command (OPCON) by the ROK/US Combined Forces Command. Now, under bilateral agreements, in peacetime on the peninsula, South Korea commands both its own troops and the U.S. military contingent. However, with the outbreak of war, the command automatically transfers to the United States, which means, in fact, that the President of the Republic of Korea, as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces, becomes subordinate to the Lieutenant General of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Peace Treaty

The question about the need to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement in Korea with a peace treaty repeatedly arose in connection with the inter-Korean summits. At the same time, there is a wide range of opinions expressed as to which states should be parties to this treaty.

The Armistice Agreement of 1953 was not an interstate document. It was an agreement between the commanders-in-chief of the warring parties on the suspension of hostilities, the withdrawal of troops and establishing a demilitarized border between them. Neither the Republic of Korea, nor the United States, nor China in state capacity were involved in the armistice agreement. Moreover, the United States and China did not participate in the Korean War as states.

The peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula should be the treaty of two sovereign independent states — the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. There are certain preconditions for this. A joint communique of the Republic of Korea and North Korea was issued on July 4, 1972, calling for an independent and peaceful reunification of the divided country, without depending on foreign powers and without foreign interference, on the basis of “great national unity.” In December 1991, the heads of government of the North and South for the first time formally recognized the equal existence of two Korean states by signing the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression and Exchanges and Cooperation. Five inter-Korean summits took place from 2000 to 2018, joint declarations being adopted at each of them — a program for the development of bilateral relations aimed at a gradual shift from confrontation to reconciliation and phased rapprochement. None of these documents provided for the participation of any third states in inter-Korean communication. It was and should be about the interaction of the two Koreas exclusively in a bilateral format.

It is noteworthy that during the 2018 Pyongyang Summit the Agreement on the Implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain was signed by the Ministers of Defense of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. This is a fundamentally new and, most importantly, a practical step towards reducing military tension. Confidence-building measures between the military are being strengthened, communication channels are opening up, the parties are going to take all measures to prevent any clashes and conflicts with the use of military force in any territory. This is all the more important, firstly, since the ROK in its own capacity did not sign the Armistice Agreement in Korea in 1953. Secondly, the leaders of the two states announced that they would pursue a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games. That is, the ROK recognized that it did not expect, as in the previous years, the regime to fall in the DPRK and that the North and South would exist separately even in 15 years.

The Korean War that started 70 years ago, has not ended yet. The Korean crisis today is one of the main threats to international security. This crisis has two components: the division of the Korean nation over decades into two separate states and the DPRK nuclear missile program.

These two components of the Korean crisis are interconnected, but their impact on each other is unequal. Pyongyang’s refusal from nuclear development alone will not end the confrontation between North and South. At the same time, normalization of inter-Korean relations is a prerequisite for ending the Korean War matters and solving the denuclearization issue of the Korean Peninsula.

From our partner RIAC

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