OPINION-Anti-Hegemonism and Reemphasized Beijing-Pyongyang Relations: Return of a New Cold War?

Judging from the remarks and actions of President Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been asserting its anti-hegemonic position and re-emphasizing Beijing-Pyongyang relations with immediate implications for Northeast Asian security and geopolitics amid the gradual comeback of a new Cold War.

On October 23, President Xi Jinping, who is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, attended the 70thanniversary of the Korean War during which the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) resisted the American army and assisted the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). All the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo attended the anniversary event inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. President Xi made several points in his speech.

First, he stressed that the older generation of revolutionaries was determined to maintain international justice and world peace and to protect the new PRC’s security. The Chinese people cannot forget the role of the Party leadership and Comrade Mao Zedong in making important policy decisions on the mobilization of the PVA. In the 70 years after 1950, according to President Xi, the Chinese people still remember the great contributions of the PVA members the Korean War.

Second, President Xi emphasized that the Chinese people “are not afraid of the violent power with their iron-like and steel-like determination.”

Third, the Korean War was a testimony to the Chinese people’s “tenacious character.”

Fourth, President Xi remarked that the war showed “the resolute determination of the Chinese people in maintaining world peace.”

Fifth, while the PVA demonstrated its fighting capability and shocked the world, it proved not only the determination to fight and win the war, but also “an irresistible historical trend of justice overcoming hegemonic power and of peaceful development.”

Sixth, President Xi emphasized that the PRC is not “afraid of violent power and has the nationalistic fervor and determination to resist hegemonic power.”

Seventh, President Xi said that the PRC’s victory in the Korean War proved the forceful leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which maintains the principle of seeing people as the central focus, which promotes socio-economic development as the key to strengthen the nation’s comprehensive strength, and which is keen to accelerate defense and military modernization so that the Chinese military will be of first class and that China will be able to “maintain world peace and justice and construct the common destiny for the mankind.”

While the mass media in Hong Kong and the mainland have covered President Xi Jinping’s important remarks on October 23, his congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un, the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of the DPRK, on October 10 was just reported by the mainland but not the Hong Kong media.

On October 10, Xinhua news agency reported the congratulatory message sent by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping to the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un.

First, General Secretary Xi said that the Workers’ Party had a glorious revolutionary tradition of leading the people of the DPRK to realize the goal of national independence and liberation, to promote socialist enterprises, and to maintain the socialist road in party construction and economic work, and to meet challenges and expand external cooperation. Xi added that he was confident of the progress made by the Workers’ Party to continue to promote the development of socialist enterprises. 

Second, General Secretary Xi emphasized that, because both China and North Korea are socialist states, and because both countries had an older generation of leaders who cultivated the tradition of mutual friendship, the current generation of leaders from both sides must cherish this long-standing tradition. In recent years, both Xi and Kim have met several times to strengthen Beijing-Pyongyang relationships. Xi added that due to the complex changes in the world amidst Covid-19, the Chinese side “hopes to maintain and consolidate Sino-North Korean relations” with the North Korean comrades so that “ the socialist enterprise development in both countries will be stable and will continue, thereby contributing to not only the well-being of citizens in the two nations but also regional stability and developmental prosperity.”

If we put together all these key points mentioned by President Xi Jinping, the implications for Beijing-Pyongyang relations are significant in several aspects.

First, at a time when the US presidential election will soon be held, and when the US has been adopting strong Cold War rhetoric to target at the CCP leadership in the PRC, Xi’s messages to Kim Jong-un showed that China is keen to re-establish closer relations with North Korea. North Korea is reportedly affected by Covid-19; Kim Jong-un on October 11 became emotional in his public speech delivered to the people during a night-time military parade. He shed his tears and praised the military for resisting Covid-19, implying that some members of the military might be infected by the virus. Kim had also visited various areas affected by a typhoon and flooding, expressing his view that the North Korean government must improve the people’s livelihood by building more houses and improving reconstruction work. 

In fact, North Korea had closed the border with China much earlier in February 2020 to prevent the spread of Covid-19. On the other hand, the country’s economy has been badly affected by international sanctions and the reduction of border trade with the PRC. While some reports have said that border along China and North Korea has witnessed trade and smuggling activities, the new re-emphasis on Beijing-Pyongyang relations is perhaps pointing to a closer economic relationship in the short run.

Second, both China and North Korea are the two socialist brothers surrounded by the US-led coalition of capitalist states, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Geopolitically speaking, the issue of de-nuclearization in the Korean Peninsula has not achieved any breakthrough in recent years. The speech made by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the “Free World’s Future” at Nixon Library on July 23, 2020 signaled a formal return to a new Cold War. His speech targeted at the CCP rule in the PRC, perhaps unintentionally forcing the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to extend warmer hands toward Kim Jong-un. Some overseas Chinese reports have revealed that Kim disliked the PRC in July 2014 when President Xi visited South Korea. But the five Kim-Xi summits from March 2018 to June 2019 improved Beijing-Pyongyang relations tremendously. With the coming back of the new Cold War rhetoric, both China and North Korea are determined to strengthen their military modernization with the objective of defending their territories against any “aggressor.” 

Third, on October 22, the PRC government began a “public consultation” on the revised version of the Law on National Defense until November 19. The amended version of the proposed Law, according to General Wei Fenghe, a member of the Central Military Commission, aimed at responding to complex security threats and challenges. Specifically, the draft amendment states that if the PRC’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security and “developmental interests” are under threat, the country can and will be able to conduct nationwide and local defense mobilization. 

The term “developmental interests” is ambiguous and can be interpreted broadly. It may involve domestic and overseas aspects, ranging from China’s overseas infrastructure to its external investment like the Belt and Road initiative, from overseas transport sea lanes to the developmental directions of Taiwan.

In other words, the amendment to the Law on National Defense is a legalistic response to the perceived national security threats to the PRC, necessitating a scenario of wartime mobilization if the situation demands.

Fourth, regardless of whether Donald Trump of the US Republican Party will be re-elected or defeated, both China and North Korea are temporarily adopting a wait-and-see attitude. From the PRC’s perspective, it is determined to oppose any hegemonic power militarily. Although President Xi did not name the US in his speech on October 23, the implied target country was obvious. If the perception of threat plays a decisive role in military preparedness and mobilization, such perceptions of military threats are from both PRC and US sides.

Fifth, the comeback of the new Cold War in Northeast Asia does not bode well for de-nuclearization and regional peace; instead, flashpoints of military accidents and conflicts are looming. Japan has been rearming itself for defensive purpose. Taiwan is becoming a key strategic area where the US is enhancing the island’s military capability vis-à-vis the People’s Liberation Army. The border dispute between India and China does not bode well for regional peace in South Asia. Recently, the military relations between the US and India have been strengthened, pointing to more tensions along the Sino-Indian border in the short run. If the US containment of China was a hallmark during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, such containment is gradually resurfacing.

The flashpoints of military accidents and conflicts include not only the Korean Peninsula, but also the South China Sea, Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Island, Sino-Indian border, and the Taiwan Strait. Frequent PLA exercises along the coastal regions of China have alarmed Taiwan, where military conscription and services are proposed to be strengthened as soon as possible.

In a nutshell, all signs are pointing to a gradual return of the new Cold War in Asia, including Northeast Asia where Beijing is keen to re-emphasize its historical, traditional, and socialist ties with Pyongyang. It remains to be seen how the US presidential election will impact on Asian and Northeast Asian security. However, no matter whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden of the Democratic Party will win the US presidential election, the profound mutual perceptions of security threats between China and the US have become genuine, leading undoubtedly to more military tensions in the coming years.