China Prepares for Another War of Conquest

On “60 Minutes” President Joe Biden again said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from an attack by China. He said he did not encourage Taiwan to declare its independence from the mainland, but that was mere diplomatic cover. Everyone, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping, knows that Taiwan has been independent since 1949, a “self-governing” island democracy whose people reject Beijing. The core U.S. position has always been that Taiwan’s actual situation cannot be changed by force.

In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry “deplores and firmly opposes the remarks made by the US president” and “China will never tolerate any activities aiming to split the country and reserves all options of taking necessary measures." Moving to the top of the options list is war, as demonstrated by the air and naval shows of force Beijing has been conducting around Taiwan since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island. There has been a wave of other congressional visits to show the bipartisan consensus on the China threat. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a usually dovish Democratic majority, passed 17-5 the Taiwan Policy Act of 2020 which strengthens support for the island republic.

President Xi has been preparing the Chinese people for conflict by conducting a series of events to celebrate China’s supposed victory in a previous war of conquest: the Korean War (1950-53). On September 15, South Korea turned over to China the remains of 88 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers killed during the war. This was a gesture of good will that was returned by Beijing with loud declarations that these men had been heroes and martyrs for their attempt to conquer South Korea. China’s most advanced J-20 stealth fighters were used to escort the transport carrying the bodies. Beijing called these troops the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) and state media Global Times reported, “The CPV martyrs had made tremendous sacrifices in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, and as their remains return to motherland, the PLA welcome them back home with latest transport aircraft and fighter jets, telling them that the motherland and its military are becoming ever stronger, with advanced weapons and equipment.”

Beijing kicked off a major celebration of the war two years ago on its 70th anniversary. Wang Huning, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of a new exhibit dedicated to the war on October 19, 2020. His history ran as follows. As requested by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, CPV forces crossed the Yalu River to join the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” (Beijing’s official name for the conflict). A total of 2.9 million CPV soldiers were sent, and 197,653 died. New films and books are pushing the theme that China was acting to defend Korea from an American invasion, a version too many American academics echo because after the initial North Korean attack was stopped and its army was routed, American forces advanced into North Korea to unite Korea on Western terms. But that is not what triggered Chinese intervention.

China’s aim was always the conquest of South Korea. Mao Zedong had mobilized the PLA even before Kim Il-sung had launched his invasion spearheaded by a brigade of Soviet tanks provided by Joseph Stalin. Seoul fell in three days. Mao did not have much faith in Kim and had prepared from the start to finish the job if Kim floundered. Beijing’s aggressive aim was proven when the PLA/CPV crossed the 38th Parallel heading south and recaptured Seoul on January 4, 1951. The South Korean capital would not be liberated again until March. President Harry Truman abandoned plans to unify the peninsula and removed General Douglas MacArthur from command in April 1951 over this policy decision. Beijing and Pyongyang have never renounced their aim to unify Korea under Communist rule.

Beijing claims the CPV won the war, but this is as phony as North Korea being called “democratic.” Yet President Xi stated in a major speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the invasion, “The great victory of the war is a declaration that the Chinese people have stood firm in the East, and an important milestone in the Chinese nation's march toward the great rejuvenation.” He makes the war more about China than Korea, “The war smashed aggressors' plot to nip New China in the bud and fully demonstrated the iron-clad will of the Chinese people to defy hegemony” he declared.

There are lessons to be learned from the wars in Asia. Where the U.S. has stood firm, shielding South Korea and Taiwan, the people have prospered. There can be no greater contrast between success and failure than between South and North Korea. South Korea is the tenth largest economy in the world, ahead of supposed superpower Russia. Despite China’s rapid growth since it shifted from Maoism to state capitalism, Taiwan is still in the lead as a healthy, free society upon which the world depends for 60% of the computer chips which run every element of modern life.

On the other hand, when America failed to stop aggression in Vietnam, the people have suffered for generations under brutal and incompetent rule. Ironically, today Hanoi is looking to the U.S. and its allies for economic support and protection from its former backers in Beijing. Vietnam has learned (as Pakistan is learning) that being an ally of China just means Beijing feels you are easier to exploit. The U.S. restrained itself during the Vietnam War, its leaders not wanting to escalate into “another Korea.” Yet, we won in Korea and lost in Vietnam. Which should be the model going forward?

Our biggest mistake in Korea was when Secretary of State Dean Acheson implied that South Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter. This opened the door to the invasion. Even after the U.S. intervened, Beijing believed it could win. Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai cabled Kim Il-sung that “The enemy is afraid of a long-lasting military operation in Korea… So they are passive and apt to panic.” Mao cabled Stalin assuring him that even if the U.S. blockaded China and bombed its cities, Korea could be won on the ground and China would rebuild. The territorial gains would be permanent, any sanctions only temporary. Thus, the key was to win on the battlefield, which we did.

President Biden made the same mistake as Acheson when he declared Ukraine was outside the U.S. defense perimeter, opening the door for Russia to invade. He is not making the same mistake again in Asia. Not only has be declared Taiwan is within our defense perimeter, he has continued President Donald Trump’s policies of sustained U.S. naval operations in the disputed regions of the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. And Trump’s push to get NATO more involved in the Indo-Pacific and to strengthen ties with India in the Quad (with Australia and Japan). Appeasement never works. Deterrence can if backed by credible military power and resolve. That is the lesson from all confrontations throughout history.

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications. 

Image: National Archives

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