When has Chinese leader Xi Jinping met the head of another state twice within a mere month? Xi’s frequent encounters with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, along with a recent visit of a high official from North Korea to Beijing, are setting a precedent and reinvigorating the type of relationship between the two countries that the Chinese describe with the “chun wang chi han” idiom, which means “without the lips, the teeth feel the cold.”
U.S. President Donald J. Trump was unsettled by such rapprochement and henceforth cancelled the summit meeting that was to be held in the coming month, mentioning his discomfort with China’s intervention in the recent reconciliation process.
The Korean Peninsula’s geopolitical importance has constantly been reiterated by many Chinese officials, and throughout history, Beijing physically intervened in conflicts there on many occasions to maintain its influence.
The first Sino-Japanese war was instigated by the power struggle between Japan and China, and Beijing’s loss handed over the regional hegemony to Tokyo. Most recently, China was a direct participant in the Korean War. It intervened when the United Nations’ forces neglected Beijing’s warning about interfering when they crossed the 38th parallel.
The war resulted in 180,000 deaths on the Chinese side, and recent data has revealed that actual casualties were almost double the previously known numbers. Even Mao Zedong’s son Mao Anying died during the war.
China paid a high price to maintain its influence and help sustain the North Korean regime. Pyongyang’s recent rapid rapprochement with the United States and its potential alignment with Washington in future policies, therefore, is a highly unfavorable situation for China.
The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War lasted even longer than the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and it was much more recent in time. Nevertheless, now the U.S. military forces are making their presence in Vietnam known with aircraft carrier Carl Vinson visiting the country in the past few months. If North Korea’s reconciliation with the U.S. unfolds in a similar manner, then China would be losing its hard-earned ally to its greatest rival.
Of course, although China is its main ally, North Korea has not been in alignment with Beijing’s positions or any international undertakings as it has been lacking the influence or power to do so. Due to the venerated Juche (self-reliance) ideology, which is the ruling principle for North Korea, the Chinese forces have retreated shortly after the Korean War, and Pyongyang has been developing nuclear capabilities to assume apparent autonomy in its conducts.
China has participated in sanctions against North Korea to discourage Pyongyang’s nuclear agenda, and the two countries’ relationship has hit historic lows. Nevertheless, despite all such disagreements, China has so far not moved in haste to have discourse with the North Korean leader on thwarting his ambitions. Only when North Korea seemingly began to reconcile with the United States and South Korea did China hastily begin to act to avoid exclusion. Therefore, improving relations with North Korea are not the priority for Beijing but rather a step toward deterring foreign influence.
Increased foreign influence or disruption on the Korean Peninsula has historically brought about the demise of Chinese dynasties. When the war between the Korean Joseon dynasty and Japan broke out in 1592, the Chinese Ming dynasty participated in it to deter Japan’s advancement toward Beijing. However, the Ming court exhausted too much energy during the conflict and shortly fell to the rise of Manchurians in the north.
Going further back into history, when in 10th century the Liao dynasty was established in the northeast region of modern China, it ultimately failed to take down the Song dynasty as it was unable to bring Goryeo, which ruled ancient Korea, into submission to its own tributary system and suffered from insecurities. More recently, the Japanese occupation of the peninsula eventually brought about the annexation of Manchuria and the invasion of the rest of China.
Learning from history, modern Chinese leaders have therefore often used the term “chun wang chi han” to emphasize the importance of maintaining its influence on the peninsula and have paid a high price to keep its “lips” in place.
It is hard to tell whether the summit between the U.S. and North Korea will actually take place and result in ultimate peace on the peninsula. However, regardless of the results, China will likely be looking for every possible way to take part in the process to maintain its influence in the region. It has heavily invested in preserving it to date, and history shows that Beijing made the right choice.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.