The question of whether China will support North Korea militarily if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula is once again becoming the topic of discussion. After being dismissed as a belief of the past, the question of China’s automatic intervention on North Korea’s behalf in a military conflict is being talked about as the signing of the two countries’ friendship treaty marks its 50th anniversary. The development is both concerning and regrettable, and demonstrates just how troubling the political situation on and around the peninsula is becoming.
Article II of the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which marks its 50th anniversary today, states, “In the event of one of the Contracting Parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states jointly and thus being involved in a state of war, the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.”
This provision was dismissed as nothing more than a dead letter as the political situation changed after the Cold War and Seoul established diplomatic relations with Beijing. But circumstances have changed with the recent rise in tensions between North Korea and South Korea. Last year, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry even stated outright that there were no plans to amend or abolish the provision in question.
This is not a problem for North Korea and South Korea alone. The United States, Japan, and Australia launched joint military exercises Saturday in the waters off the northwest coast of Borneo. This area is in the vicinity of the Spratly (Nansha) Islands, where China and surrounding Southeast Asian countries are currently clashing over sovereignty. The United States either has held or plans to hold joint military exercises in the South and East China Seas with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. At last month’s foreign and defense minister (2 plus 2) summit between the United States and Japan, the two countries made plans to beef up their three separate tripartite alliances with Australia, South Korea, and India. This was clearly a move targeting China. Naturally, Beijing has objected, and the regional arms race is picking up steam.
In the broad scheme of things, inter-Korean tensions are a product and driving force of upheaval in an East Asian political situation that is rapidly developing into a confrontation pitting a southern bloc led by the United States on one side against a northern bloc led by China on the other. Increased South Korean participation in the southern bloc will lead Pyongyang and Beijing to band together more tightly. We need to examine the significance of the renewed debate of China’s automatic military intervention within this context.
The problem is that this confrontation between blocs, which prioritizes the strategic interests of major powers, does not tally with the interests of the Korean people. It is exceedingly dangerous for North Korea and South Korea to participate as a sub-system in these powers’ New Cold War bloc strategy. It prolongs a national division that has already dragged out for sixty years, and a worst case scenario could see the Korean Peninsula turning into a battlefield once again irrespective of our wills. Rather than fighting, North Korea and South Korea should be summoning the wisdom to prosper together. That is the only way for both to survive.
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