Tuesday, November 30, 2010

China's changing frontier?

(Holy hell, new content on the blog! What's it been, like a decade?)

Two data points from the last week or so. First, this long article in Tehelka about China's military moves along India's northern frontiers (basically, on either side of Nepal and Bhutan.) The Chinese have massively strengthened their forces along the border, presumably (the article argues) to force a change in the status of the line of control -- changing de facto borders with India in to de jure ones. Also, the article argues that China might try to actually take new territory to secure Tibet once and for all.

Secondly, the news today that China may be singalling to the US and other regional allies that it's about had it with this North Korean bullshit. From the Guardian:
"Citing private conversations during previous sessions of the six-party talks , Chun claimed [the two high-level officials] believed Korea should be unified under ROK [South Korea] control," Stephens reported.

"The two officials, Chun said, were ready to 'face the new reality' that the DPRK [North Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state – a view that, since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, had reportedly gained traction among senior PRC [People's Republic of China] leaders. Chun argued that in the event of a North Korean collapse, China would clearly 'not welcome' any US military presence north of the DMZ [demilitarised zone]. Again citing his conversations with [the officials], Chun said the PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the US in a 'benign alliance' – as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.
Now, this is all effectively third-hand information: what a South Korean envoy told a US diplomat he'd heard from two Chinese envoys. Still, it's plausible and actually makes sense: at this point, China would probably profit substantially from even a semi-open relationship with a united Korea, as opposed to the status quo.

But what interests me is the strategic shift both pieces seem to indicate. North Korea is really the last major source of headaches for that part of China's world, and really the only one in the near future where "Americans in a shooting war" is at all a likely possibility. A united Korea would eliminate an ongoing political headache, a security headache, and open up an economic opportunity for the Chinese. This is all part of modestly successful history of China calming down relations with Japan and even Taiwan--there's not a lot left to fight over in the North Pacific.

Meanwhile, if the Tehelka article is to be believed, Beijing is basically preparing for a future of outright competition, if not hostility, with India. It's a relatively straightforward strategic shift from China worrying about it's eastern borders and conflict with the US and its allies, to worrying about India.

Of course, the idea of a major power war between the two countries is terrifying so this isn't just academic interest. The idea that China and India are going to replay the Franco-German relationship of the early half of the 20th century feels a bit more plausible every year...

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