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After North Korea tested a salvo ballistic missiles designed to defeat U.S. and Allied missile defenses in the Pacific, speculation has increased over a possible US beheading strike on North Korea.
Here’s how China would react if the United States attacked the Hermit Kingdom.
China has an interest in preserving the North Korean state, but not enough to start WWIII again.
China may not approve of North Korea’s nuclear threats to the United States, South Korea and Japan, or its appalling human rights practices, but Beijing has a vested interest in preventing reunification on the Korean Peninsula.
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Yet China’s proximity to North Korea means the United States would likely alert Chinese forces to an attack – whether they give 30 minutes or 30 days’ notice, the Chinese response would likely be to prevent – and not to thwart – such an attack.
China sees a united Korea as a potential threat.
“A united Korea is potentially very powerful, a country right on the border with China,” with a functioning democracy, a booming tech sector, and a Western trend, which is “a problem they’d rather not deal with.” , according to Tack.
The United States has more than 25,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea, but no American assets have crossed the 38th parallel in decades. China would like it to be so.
And without North Korea, China would find itself exposed.
For China, the North Korean state acts as a “physical buffer against allies and forces of the United States,” Tack said.
If the United States could base forces in North Korea, it would be right on the border with China, and therefore in a better position to contain China as it continues to rise as a world power.
Tack said China would “definitely react and try to prevent” US action that could lead to a reunified Korea, but the idea that Chinese ground forces would flock to North Korea and fight the West is unsuccessful. “not particularly likely at all”.
Openly supporting North Korea against the West would be political suicide for China.
For China to come to the aid of the Kim regime – an international outcast with concentration camps and the ambition to neutralize the United States – simply to protect a buffer state “would literally mean that China would engage in a third world war. Tack said.
So while China would certainly try to soften North Korea’s downfall, it is extremely unlikely to do so with direct force against the West, as it did during the Korean War.
Any response from China would likely start with diplomacy.
Currently, the United States has an aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, F-22s and F-35s in the Pacific. Many of America’s largest guns were shipped to the Pacific for Foal Eagle, the annual military exercise between the United States and South Korea.
But according to Tack, the real deliberations over North Korea’s fate are not between military planners, but between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Chinese diplomats he will meet.
Even after decades of diplomatic failure, there is still hope for a non-military solution.
“There are still a lot of diplomatic means to be used before the United States has no choice but to go for a military option,” Tack said. “But even if they decide the military option is going to be the way to go, it’s still going to be costly. It is not something you would take lightly.
While no party in a potential conflict would resort to force without exhausting all diplomatic channels, each party has a plan for acting first.
According to Tack, if China thought the United States was going to act against North Korea, it would try to use force to pressure Pyongyang to negotiate, lest they be forced to face the consequences of an order imposed by the West in what would ultimately be a reunified Korea.
“China could bring forces into North Korea to act as a trap wire,” Tack said.
People’s Liberation Army soldiers at Shenyang training base in China, March 24, 2007. |
DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, United States Air Force.
“The obvious presence of Chinese forces would deter the United States from entering this territory because it would run the risk of inviting this larger conflict itself.”
For the same reason that the United States is stationing troops in South Korea or Poland, China could seek to put some of its forces on the line to prevent the United States from striking.
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With Chinese soldiers in Pyongyang and around North Korea’s main nuclear infrastructure, the United States should think long and hard about bombing these critical targets.
It is highly likely that China is trying to force the hand of the “infallible” ruler.
Even China, a country often indifferent to international opinion that has strict bans on free speech internally, wouldn’t stand up and support Kim’s murderous regime.
Chinese forces in North Korea would be “able to force a coup or force Kim’s hand” to disarm, Tack said.
“To ensure that North Korea still exists and serves Chinese interests as it stops acting like a massive bubble for the United States,” he added.
This would be an ideal outcome for China and would most certainly prevent a direct US strike.
But even if China potentially saves the day, it could still be seen as the bad guy.
Chinese leaders want to avoid a strong, US-aligned Korea at its borders. They want to prevent a massive influx of refugees from a crushed North Korean state. And they want to defuse nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula – but in doing so, they would be exposing an ugly truth.
US President Donald Trump accused China of refuse to help with North Korea.
If China unilaterally denuclearizes North Korea to prevent a US strike, that would only justify this claim and raise questions about why China has allowed North Korea to develop and export dangerous technologies and to commit heinous human rights violations.
So what happens at the end?
For China, it’s “not even about saving” the roughly 25 million people living under a brutal dictatorship in North Korea, but rather maintaining its buffer state, according to Tack.
China would probably seek to install an alternative government to the Kim regime but which still opposes the West and does not cooperate with the United States.
According to Tack, China needs a North Korean state that says “we oppose Western interests and we own this land.”
If China does not exercise its influence quickly, it may be too late.