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Misconceptions about modern China

Amjed Jaaved

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China is, at once, feared and envied by many countries, the United States of America in the forefront. Its sheer size and population is awesome. China’s economic progress has engendered apprehensions that it may overtake the USA and emerge as the new hegemon. The USA harbours a love-hate relation with China dragon. The relation reflects distrust, fractiousness and tension coupled with watchful competitiveness.

The USA looks upon China as a copycat out to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned enterprises through cyber-espionage. Cognitive dissonance in US-China relation is obvious. The USA likes China’s economic progress, as long as it suits American interests. But, it abhors China’s efforts to occupy more strategic space in the region around it, particularly the South China Sea.

China, too, wants to keep an eye on the USA. Its universities and think tanks teem with specialists on the USA, European Union and the rest of the world. There are 150 think tanks focusing on Australia alone. Though India shares border with C china, Chinese students have little interest in exploring Indian culture and history. The Chinese display an indifferent attitude, bordering ignorance about India. Let us mention a few of the misconceptions about modern China heretofore.

Misconception1: Chinese loans are predatory: The US has expressed its apprehensions about Chinese investment in Pakistan, Sri Lanka as elsewhere. For the US, the investments are a predatory debt trap that could lead to ‘asset seizures’ like Hambantota port of Sri Lanka.

The factual position is that Chinese infrastructure loans have not led to the forfeiture of a single valuable asset abroad. The US view is based on Rhodium Group study, which mentions only Hambantota port as the lone instance of seizure. The claim of forced lease or seizure is questionable. The Hambantota port lease, held jointly by the Hong Kong-based China Merchants Port and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, was negotiated over 2016-2017.

Payments of the principal and interest for the port loans included only about 1.5 per cent of Sri Lanka’s external debt repayment obligations. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority promptly paid dues using revenues from Colombo port, which includes a container terminal run by China Merchants Port.

China holds an estimated nine to 15pc of Sri Lanka’s low-interest external debt. It owes high-interest loans to Western commercial banks. International sovereign bonds account for about half of the external debt, with Americans holding two-thirds of their value and Asians only about eight per cent.

Sri Lanka is liable to pay interest averaging 6.3 per cent on international sovereign bonds and the principal must be fully repaid in about seven years. In contrast, more than two-thirds of the value of Chinese state funds lent to Sri Lanka from 2001-2017 (including two-thirds of the Hambantota port loans) were at two per cent interest, and mostly repayable over 20 years.

Media reports about Sri Lanka’s government being forced to sign the port away on a 99-year lease after failing to repay Chinese loans at 6.3pc are untenable.

The Sri Lankan government still owns the Hambantota port and funds received for the lease were used to pay off expensive Western loans. There is no Chinese military base at Hambantota

Misconception 2: China wants to colonise Pakistan: China never harboured any such ambition. History tells that China did its best to ensure protection of Pakistan’s sovereignty. A strong Pakistan is a bulwark for C china’s security as well. Andrew Small, in The China-Pakistan Axis (page 34) tells `In 1982, a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft belonging to the Pakistan military left Urumqi, capital of the North-Western Chinese province of Xinxiang, headed for Islamabad, carrying five lead-lined, stainless steel boxes, inside each were 10 single-kilogram ingots of highly enriched uranium, enough for two atomic’ bombs. He adds, `China began supplying both M-11s and M-9s in unassembled form, which required development of a dedicated missile assembly facility near Rawalpindi’ (p. 40, ibid.).

There are marked differences between China and Pakistan that rule out Pakistan as a colony for China. China’s pragmatism as `religion’, now dollar-orientation, obedient labour force, enlightened leadership with a world vision, and hard work ethos is different from Pakistan’s.

Take water aspect alone. Our lethargy marks a contrast with China’s history. There are more than 22,104 dams in China over the height of 15 m (49 ft.). Of the world’s total large dams, China accounts for 20 per cent of them, 45 percent for irrigation. The oldest dam in China Dujiangyan Irrigation System dates back to 256 BC. In 2005, there were over 80,000 reservoirs in the country and over 4,800 dams completed or under construction that stands at or exceed 30 metre (98 ft) in height. As of 2007, China is also the world’s leader in the construction of large dams. The tallest dam in China is the Jinping-I Dam at 305 metre (1,001 ft), an arch dam, which is also the tallest dam in the world. The largest reservoir is created by the Three Gorges Dam, which stores 39.3 billion m3 (31,900,000 acre feet) of water and has a surface area of 1,045 km2 (403 sq mi). Three Gorges is also the world’s largest power station.

China’s Marxist-social metamorphosis defies our religious moorings. China was able to bridge the stark differences that existed between rural and urban lifestyles. The hukou system was designed to prevent rural to urban migration.

Our banking sector has consumer orientation. The Chinese system with about 37 tiers has investment orientation. China `entertained’ foreign investors in every possible way. `In 2001, a count of the out-of wedlock children produced by Shenzhen’s working women and mistresses over two decades numbered 5,20,000…the sex industry is one of the few robust conduits of money backs to China’s impoverished areas (Ted C. Fishman, China Inc. 2003, p. 98). There are karaoke clubs to entertain burly foreign investors.

Aside from Tiananmen Square political protest, China has no tradition of industrial protests. `A fundamental problem with the Chinese working class is that it was disorganized and its protests were often leaderless (Alvin Y.So and Yin Wah Chu, The Global Rise of China, p.144).  The so-called unions just collected funds to organise birthday parties and recreational events. In November 1999, the government announced new rules for public gatherings regarding assemblies larger than 200 to obtain approval from local public-security authorities.

Pakistani onlookers.  C Chinese leaders have a world vision Weltanschanschauung.

Pakistani sand-dune `leaders’ have none.

Misconception 3: Chinese to be Pakistan’s second language: The popularity of a language rises or falls pari passu with a country’s place in the comity of nations. Historically, English, French, Russian, Arabic and mandarin were the languages of imperialistic or conquering states. Shifts in power triggered shifts in the status of languages. English continues to hold sway as it has dominated the commercial, scientific, commercial, scientific and technological fields.

Sir Syed understood the link between power and language. Britain and France insisted upon enforcing English and French in their colonies. During the heyday of the Soviet Union, Russian was the lingua franca from Prague to Hanoi.

After the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Germans began to take pride in speaking German at international forums. People follow language of the dominant power. In the subcontinent, the English language supplanted Persian, the language of the Moghuls. So much so, that that Persian is now archaic in South Asia.

Hong Kong’s effervescence for mandarin is due to the rise of China. When, around 2050, China displaces the USA as the world’s premier economy, English is likely to give way to mandarin as the world’s new lingua franca.

In Pakistan, Sindh set the trend. The NED Engineering University and many private school systems have started teaching mandarin. The Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority, Punjab, offers free language courses for students of all ages.

To attract, Chinese investment in our country, we should say Ni hao to Chinese language.

Misconception 4; The 21st Century will be China’s, not America’s: The fear is that China will surpass the USA within next 10 to 20 years. Cash-rich Beijing with over US$ 30 trillion in foreign capital-reserves will be increasingly uncompromising diplomatically. To entertain a rising Chinese middle class, the world would become more and more `Sinicised’.

The truth is that the Western view of China is a bit too alarmist. The world will have to compromise with China’s economic and cultural heft. The two world views can coexist. One is based on protection of individual self-interest, and the other is top-down Confucian patriarchy. Yet, the diarchy may co-exist peacefully without a Manichian struggle of the ilk of good and evil, darkness and light. Be it observed, aside from hype China has so far been non-hegemonic at heart. It has no desire to spin existing geo-politico-economic order out its axis. China will move on its peaceful trajectory for another thirty years. China is unlikely to replay misadventures of the Great Leap Forward’ and the `Cultural Revolution’ to re-shape the nation in Mao Zedong’s image.

The people are becoming more and more resentful against bureaucratic control, lethargy and even perceived corruption. On average over 150000 `public disorder events’ occur each year. Massive abuse of `eminent domain’ is conspicuous from compensating owners of seized lands at fire-scale prices. Restructuring led to dislocation of workers. Internet is an outlet to fan concerns about government’s impartiality and favouritism. People are sick of fat-cat-like bureaucratic lifestyle. Chinese ministry of state security has about 100,000 employees who employ sophisticated algorithms to monitor and censor sensitive online chats, and micro-blogs. Mao Zedong is still revered as `70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative’.

Misconception 5: Ascendancy of American style individualism: Chinese are becoming better off with a rising middle class and concomitant changes in cultural outlook. Yet, they are far off from American ethos of `life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’. The cultural wave is manifest from China’s role rock scene, loaded with a rebellious spirit, and bands like Hutong Fist, Tomahawks, Catcher in the Rye, Twisted machine, Queen Sea,  Big Shark and Wild Children. Surely people have abandoned colorless conformity in favour of individualism.

Yet, the brutal; truth is family life discourages individualism. `Pursuit of happiness’ is at best an adolescent fantasy. It is soon forsaken under stress of marriage mortgage, mother-in-law and motor car ownership.

Parents teachers bosses never encourage defining oneself independent of society. The clan, not society is the primary productive unit of society. Ego gratification is not synonymous with individualism,. Success with societal acknowledgment is the norm, not sol flights.

Misconception 6: Atheism: Chinese aretraditionally obsessed with survival, not eternity, or higher spiritual values. C Chinese philosophy of Daoism, Confucianism, and legalism are mechanistic. They are concerned with values as a means to an end. Pragmatism is the key attitude. Buddhism stands secularized to align gods with wealth and kitchen not spiritual alignment.

The Chinese society is in transition. Materialism now means faith in a bright future. Even spread of C Christianity in both rural and urban areas is not tantamount to rejection of traditional values. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism emerged as complement to, not repudiation material secularism.

Misconception 7: revolutionary influence of Internet: China is a country in East Asia and is the world’s most populous country, with a population of around 1.428 billion in 2017. As of July 2016, 730,723,960 people (53.2% of the country’s total population) were internet users. They are free to play violent computer games, indulge in free music-downloads access to boot-legged movies, and e-commerce. Too, gap between rulers and the ruled have been narrowing. Anonymous sentinels (Weibo, China’s Twitter clone) relay reports of corruption in real time.

Yet, internet is unlikely to upend people-to-government relationship. Internet chats do not crystallise into massive organised dissent. Pre-occupied with welfare of their families few would dare risking trouble with authorities. Very few people knew of dissident Liu Xiabo’s arrest, or his Noble Peace Prize..

Chinese cyberspace is like a walled crystal-globe. People can gaze through it over the world around but they can’t take part in violent agitation. The government cleverly uses cyberspace in advancing social harmony. It facilitates e-commerce platforms. They expand supply and improve quality of consumer goods available in lower-tier markets, down to the rural fringe.

Digital technology has improved Party’s responsiveness. There are over 50,000 net-police monitor-bulletin-boards which alert leadership about discussion on sensitive topics and unharmonious rumblings before they flare up into untoward incidents.

Misconception 8: Chinese people are akin to Europeans: Not so. Average Chinese values stability in family above individualism. There are no political or religious divides as in Europe: lackadaisical Italians versus industrious Germans, anti-institutional Protestants versus statist Catholic.

China displays differences in the north, dominated by bureaucratic state-owned enterprises and the south close to the sea, encumbered by governmental hierarchy. Generally, the Chinese have an identical world view.

As of November 2019, China’s population stands at 1.435 billion, the largest of any country in the world. According to the 2010 census, 91.51% of the population was Han Chinese, and 8.49% were minorities. China’s population growth rate is only 0.59%, ranking 159th in the world.

The major minority ethnic groups in China are Zhuang (16.9 million), Hui (10.5 million), Manchu (10.3 million), Uyghur (10 million), Miao (9.4 million), Yi (8.7 million), Tujia (8.3 million), Tibetan (6.2 million), Mongol (5.9 million), Dong (2.8 million), Buyei (2.8 million), and Yao (2.7 million), Bai (1.9 million). The identified 56 minorities remain outside Han cultural fold.

Misconception 9: Inscrutable Chinese consumer: Usually reticent, Chinese evince warmth once trust has been established. They are  not complicated and display warmth and directness in everyday attitude. They are attracted to Western brands just as any other consumer.

Misconception 10; China growth bubble is about to burst: Critics outline a host of challenges to Chinese growth model. They include rising inflation and commodity prices, wage increases inimical to low-cost manufacturing, bureaucratic hurdles to bold structural reforms, urban-rural income militating against social harmony, and an education system that squelches harmony. The fact is that resilient Chinese economy is not over-heating. The economist noted that China’s accumulated investment in fixed assets is still low and real wages have been rising strongly, which should help boos consumption in the medium term. Talk of popping bubbles is confined to high-end neighbourhoods in coastal capitals.

China is emulating American experience in becoming an industrial powerhouse in the twentieth century. Formation of supplier-and-producer clusters is facilitates through cost-slashing in different regions now specializing in different sectors. The middle class has completed a successful production-consumption circle akin to the USA.

Misconception 11: burgeoning poverty due to unbalanced growth: China was able to bridge the stark differences that existed between rural and urban lifestyles. The hukou system was designed to prevent rural to urban migration. In China today, poverty refers mainly to the rural poor, as decades of economic growth have largely eradicated urban poverty. The dramatic progress in reducing poverty over the past three decades in China is well known. According to the World Bank, more than 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 0.7 percent in 2015, as measured by the percentage of people living on the equivalent of US$1.90 or less per day in 2011 purchasing price parity terms.In 2017, China lifted 12.89 million rural people from poverty which put the poverty rate at 3.1 percent compared to its 4.5 percent the previous year. Around 500 million people, or 40 percent of the population within China, survive on $5.50 per day or less.

Productivity has overpowered lack of innovation, creaky distribution networks, patchy tax collection, and even corruption…

Misconception 12; China is militarily aggressive: China is accused of harbouring outlandish territorial claims in South China Sea, confronting Japan on the high seas and the Philippines.  Over 1000 ballistic weapons aim at Taiwan.

Its annual defence spending has been increasing by 13 per cent since 1989. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates the overall 2018 figure at $250 billion and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) puts the number at $209 billion in 2017. The US Department of Defense concludes that China’s 2018 defense budget likely exceeded $200 billion. In 2017, the magazine Popular Mechanics estimated that China’s annual military spending is greater than $200 billion, around 2% of the GDP.

But, be it noted that the U.S. spent $649 billion on its military to 2018, according to a report published in 2019 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That’s significantly more than China, second on the list of top military spenders. Of course China is now making aircraft carriers and missiles with range over 900 kilometers. Still, China is nowhere near the USA in military capability. Nor does it have any ambition to invade other countries or challenge USA’s military supremacy in any way.

Temperamentally, Chinese shield themselves from danger (The great Wall). But, they have no itch to wage a war.

India unilaterally `annexed’ Chinese territory in her maps. China did nothing more than protesting verbally or sending emissaries to India for talks.

Misconception 13: Uyghur’s persecution and social issues: The Uyghurs, alternately Uygurs, Uighurs or Uigurs, are a

Minority Turkic ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. The Uyghurs are recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. The Uighurs are the people whom Old Russian travellers called Sart (a name which they used for sedentary, Turkish-speaking Central Asians in general), while Western travellers called them Turki, in recognition of their language.

The Uighurs are the people whom old Russian travellers called Sart (a name which they used for sedentary, Turkish-speaking Central Asians in general), while Western travellers called them Turki, in recognition of their language. They are mentioned in Chinese records from the 3rd century. They first rose to prominence in the 8th century, when they established a kingdom along the Orhon River in what is now north-central Mongolia.

Insider dated December 24, 2019 reported that China has initiated a “Pair Up and Become Family” program to dilute Uyghur minority. Han Chinese men are sent to live with Uighur women in China’s western region of Xinjiang. “Neither the girls nor their families can reject such a marriage because they will be viewed [by Chinese authorities] as Islamic extremists for not wanting to marry atheist Han Chinese. They have no choice but to marry them.  It is alleged that the Han Chinese have been raping Uighur women in the name of marriage for years. China denies the allegation.

Be it observed that the Uighurs is not like Orthodox Muslims. Both Pakistan and the Uighurs criticise each other. Andre Small (p.80, ibid.) states `Pakistan’s criticism of the Uighurs’ irreligiousness or fondness casts aspersions on their standing as Muslims’. It is said that `Turkistan separatists are supported by the United States or India in order to drive a wedge between China and Pakistan.

Chinese concept of Social evils differs from Pakistan’s. Divested of morality, an ordinary Chinese consider it just normal to give or take `body pleasure’ for money. In Khanewal some Chinese engineers scuffled with police when it tried to prevent them from going to a `red-light area’. Recently some Chinese gangs have been busted at Faislalabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi for fake marriages with Pakistani girls including some underage and later exploiting them as sex slaves (Dawn, Tribune, etc. dated May 9, 2019). The police recovered illicit aphrodisiac `drugs’, `gold ornaments’, `dowry’, Chinese passports and weapons. It is generally believed that the arrests are just a tip of the iceberg. In some Karachi areas, Chinese have rented congested adjacent housing units in various Karachi areas and turned them into `out of bound’ to Pakistanis. What they do there is anybody’s guess. Traditionally, Chinese prefer to develop and live in China towns wherever they go on the globe. In Pakistan, they have avoided doing so as what they eat (cats, dogs, monkey brains, insects) may sound revulsive and non-kosher to

Conclusion: Though China wants to overcome present and future challenges, it has no manifesto detailing goals for the next two decades. The alarmist or envious view of a rising China engendered many misconceptions. Once could however peek through XI Jinping’s pronouncements, or his predecessors, to sift his `benchmark vision’. There are three benchmarks.  In the first ten years, the goal was to provide adequate food and clothing to Chinese population (already achieved). In the second phase, the plan is to build a moderately-prosperous country by 20120 with a per capita gross Domestic Product of around US$ 13,000. The final phase, 2020 to 2050, envisions complete modernization of both rural and urban parts of China.

Since early 2013, XI has been talking about `fuqiang guojia’ (`rich, strong, powerful country’). To realise his dreams, he need to stay in power. Yet, his dream is threatened by emerging challenges to China’s stability and development. The most potent challenge emanates from US machinations to destabilize China (tariff and trade war, religious concerns, BRI/CPEC concerns).  True, there are social issues involving China’s unity, need for political reform in view of the Party’s long continuation in power and economic or political deterioration in the international environment.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

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.

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East Asia

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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