China has long upheld a neutral, if not opposing, stance to Korean unification, a stance which could be largely defined as the political risks associated with the Republic of Korea (ROK)-US alliance and the stationing of US forces (USFK) in South Korea. Given South Korea’s need to engage USFK forces, does it imply there would not be a complete resolution to the Korean conundrum and to the future status of the US-ROK alliance and the USFK forces? In the recent years, the Chinese has somewhat softened its stance and its support of South Korea’s unification initiatives can be seen coming from the party, the military, and the political realm. Empirical evidence and logical inference from recent Chinese intellectual discourse have indicated that China’s security concerns could possibly be allayed if there is a redefinition of the ROK-US alliance and the USFK in the context of defending Taiwan and if the Korean unification precedes China’s.
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From the Chinese Communist Party, Secretary General Xi Jinping for the first time publicly supported South Korean government’s unification measure, i.e., trust-building process, at his meeting with President Park in March 2014 in the Netherlands where he “speaks highly of the trust-building process of the Korean Peninsula proposed by President Park.” “Xi Jinping Meets with President Park Geun-hye of the Republic of Korea,” Embassy of the PRC in Ireland, http://ie.china-embassy.org/eng/zgxw/t1141383.htm (accessed September 7, 2015). Chinese top legislator, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress, also openly expressed Chinese support for the same measure during his visit to Seoul in February 2014. “Zhang Dejiang: Fandui hanhandao yonghe, zhichi hanbandao xinren jincheng (Zhang Dejiang: Opposes Korean peninsula’s nuclearization but supports Korean peninsula trust-building process),” Yeonhap News, February 20, 2014. From the Chinese military, open support came from Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan in his meeting with President Park when he said China “vowed to join forces with the South for the achievement of peaceful reunification.” “President Park emphasizes Chinese support for Korean reunification,” Koreanet, February 5, 2015, http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Policies/view?articleId=125471 (accessed March 5, 2015).
For the first time, China’s unification support was read to the South Korean audience by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in his speech at the South Korean National Assembly in 2005. “China’s Hu Supports Eventual Korean Unification,” Reuters, November 17, 2005, http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2005/11/17/chinas_hu_says_supports_eventual_korean_unification/ (accessed November 18, 2005).
On China’s support to the Trust-building process (, p. 4, , p. 99). China appraises President Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative positively, Yeonhap News, May 9, 2013, http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2013/05/09/0200000000AKR20130509185500083.HTML?from=search (accessed May 20, 2013); and “China voices support for Park’s proposal on unification with N Korea,” Yeonhap News, April 3, 2014. Dresden’s declaration was a speech to complement her earlier vision on the benefits of the unification by specifying so-called “three umbrella agendas” as the foundation for peaceful unification with the North: humanity, co-prosperity, and integration. Some specific measures included “joint economic development projects, the creation of the Northeast Asia Development Bank and cultural and educational exchanges with North Korea.” “President makes history in Dresden,” Joong-Ang Daily, March 29, 2014.
A pioneering work on the benefits of Korean unification to China by . The notion of “Dae-bak” was introduced in “Opening remarks by President Park Geun-hye at the New Year press conference,” http://www.korea.net/Government/Briefing-Room/Presidential-Speeches/view?articleId=117043 (accessed January 7, 2014).
“Unification may be jackpot: Park,” Joong-Ang Ilbo, January 7, 2014. For an extensive and detailed study on the benefits of Korean unification from both internal and external perspectives, see . For a Chinese perspective, Zhang Wuanyi, “What Korean Reunification Means to China,” Policy Forum Online, The Nautilus Organization for Security and Sustainability, October 12, 2007, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/what-korean-unification-means-to-china/ (accessed November 23, 2007).
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Jonathan Pollack, “Is Xi Jinping Rethinking Korean Unification?” A paper presented at the Third Korea Research Institute for Security-Brookings Joint Conference on “Cooperating for Regional Stability in the Process of Korean Unification: Contingency Preparations with the ROK-U.S. as Anchor” in Seoul, Korea, on January 20, 2015. Available at http://www.brookings.edu/research/presentations/2015/01/20-xi-jinping-korean-unification-pollack (accessed March 2, 2015); and .
A contrary view s expressed in .
Such argument was endorsed and reinforced when Chinese principles on Korean unification were recently reiterated in the Joint Statement following President Park and President Xi Jinping’s summit in 2014. <Zhonghua remin gongheguo he dahan minguo lianhe shengming [People’s Republic of China and Republic of Korea Joint Statement]>, Chinese Foreign Ministry webpage, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/gjhdq_603914/gj_603916/yz_603918/1206_604234/1207_604246/t1171408.shtml, July 4, 2014 (accessed July 4, 2014). For a compilation of support statement on the Korean reunification by successive Chinese leaders from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, see (, pp. 21–24, , p. 141,  p. 59, , p. 168).
Instead of using such words as “dissolving” or “dismantling” to describe China’s preference for the status of ROK-US alliance and the “complete withdrawal” of the USFK from the peninsula, the latest of official criticism on ROK-US alliance came in 2008. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang called the alliance “an outdated historical legacy of the Cold War” just the day before former South Korean President Lee Myong-bak’s first official visit to Beijing. Source: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Briefing, May 27, 2008.
One transformation form of the USFK that is expected as a result of a reduction in size from two brigades to one will be defined by so-called “Interim Brigade Combat Team (IBCT),” which is “designed with specific operational and organizational capabilities and would be able to deploy rapidly and conduct early entry operations” of the region, implying East Asia in a broad context and/or Northeast Asia (, p. 127). Recited from Army Transformation Brief on the Interim Force by Major General Jim Grazioplene, October 17, 2000, http://www.army.mil/usa/AUSA%20Web/PDF%20Files/IBCT%20Web%20with%20Notes.pdf (accessed July 24, 2000).
Such a posture by the USA, Japan and Korea will more likely be perceived by the Chinese as “a base for potential power play against China.” .
It was reported at the conclusion of President Park’s first visit to Beijing in 2013 that President Xi “gave a message that Beijing would not refuse peaceful unification led by Seoul.” “Chinese president vows to be ‘good partner’ in Korean reunification,” The Dong-A Ilbo, June 29, 2013. Tisdall, Simon. “Wikileaks cables reveal China ‘ready to abandon North Korea’,” November 29, 2010, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-china-reunified-korea (accessed January 3, 2011); “Zhongguo keyi jieshou hanguo toyi chaoxian bandao [China can accept South Korea unifying the Korean peninsula],” FT Zhongwenwang [Financial Times-Chinese version], December 1, 2010, http://www.ftchinese.com/story/001035811?full=y (accessed January 3, 2011); “China, ‘We Will Not Intervene if US Attacks North Korea,” Daily NK, March 26, 2005; and ( p. 123, , p. 51).
Out of such concerns, Chinese discourse emphasizes that the USFK should stay within the confine of the Korean peninsula (, p. 33).
In one observer’s term, it is so-called the freedom of action (, p. 129).
When North Korea first introduced the question of USFK’s withdrawal as a formal discussion agenda at the fourth round of the Four-Party Talks, Chinese representatives did not oppose it, maintaining silence, which alluded to their acquiescence .
A possible surgical strike at North Korea’s nuclear facility in Yongbyon was first mentioned by a US official, then advisor to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, on June 11, 2003. “US should prepare to strike Yongbyon facility,” Joong-Ang Ilbo, June 12, 2003.
A plan to transfer the alliance into a regional and even a global partnership was announced in the Strategic Alliance 2015 agreement, which is premised on the relocation of the USFK and enhancement of ROK’s defense capabilities .
Cited in “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop A One-Superpower World,” New York Times, March 8, 1992. Recited from (, p. 4).
Cited in South China Morning Post, April 8, 1997. Recited from (, p. 4).
The joint study was conducted by the Rand in the United States and Korea Institute of Defense Analysis of Korea (, p. 5).
Other factors that accounted for America’s justification include those perceived by the USA as vital to its regional strategic interests. They involve US role in guaranteeing regional stability during the tenuous period of transition, free and open sea-lanes, and the defense of Taiwan (, pp. 124–29).
Chinese reaction is well documented in (, pp. 100–104).
The scale of the exercise already began to expand in 2002 even before the breakout of the second North Korean nuclear crisis in March 2002 for instance, with the participation of a US aircraft carrier and about 500,000 South Korean troops. It was then by far the largest exercise since the end of the Korean War in 1953 (, p. 23). The scale would only increase with such bombers as B-2 and B-52, and F-22 jet fighters flying more than 4000 times for target practice in addition to the participation of the 7th Fleet and nuclear submarines. It would later include US aircraft carrier in 2004 (Kitty Hawk) and 2010 (George Washington) (, pp. 40–42). For China’s assessment of the US-ROK-Japan joint military exercises (, pp. 62–63).
Xinhuanet, June 6, 2010, http://news.xinhuanet.com/world/2010-07/06/c_12305072.htm (accessed June 7, 2010); Yonhap News, July 7, 2010; and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Press Briefing, July 8, 2010, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/chn/gxh/tyb/fyrbt/jzhsl/t714888.htm (accessed July 11, 2010, and July 13, 2010), http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/chn/gxh/tyb/fyrbt/jzhsl/t716403.htm (accessed July 16, 2010).
China’s such concerns were arisen by the remark by then US Pacific Commander William J. Fallon on March 7, 2006, when he rationalized US-ROK alliance in the context of joint military exercises among the USA, Japan, and ROK as to defend against non-traditional security threats, China’s military modernization, and changes in security environment as a result of improved inter-Korean relations (, p. 54).
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Choo, J. China’s Defense Against Post-unification Korea-US Alliance: Not at Yalu but Taiwan Strait. East Asia 33, 197–212 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12140-016-9258-6