US-China tensions: Korean war was a miscalculation. It could happen again with Taiwan

SCMP October marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean war, amid concerns that a miscalculation and disinformation could cause another China-US confrontationTaiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint between the two powers, the other being the disputed South China Sea
Wang Xiangwei

Wang Xiangwei

Published: 9:45am, 5 Sep, 2020 5 Sep 2020

In October 1950, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the Yalu River on the border with North Korea and entered the brutal Korean war which lasted until July 1953 – the first and only war between the People’s Republic and the United States, so far.

Now, as Beijing is making elaborate preparations to mark the 70th anniversary of the war in the context of escalating military tensions between the two countries, the commemoration will have not only historical significance but also practical implications.

Historians may list more than a dozen reasons for China entering the war 70 years ago and why it lasted for nearly three years. But top of the list has to be that miscalculations on both sides contributed to a cruel and brutal war which killed or injured millions of civilians and soldiers while reshaping the international order and freezing bilateral ties for 20 years.

70 years since the Korean war, threat of armed conflict still hangs over the peninsula24 Jun 2020

Today, a similar threat is looming as concerns rise that a miscalculation on either side could lead to another military confrontation between the world’s two largest economies, with far-reaching implications for the entire world.

The Chinese government officially called it the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, a just war that China was forced to fight, merely one year after the founding of the People’s Republic.

History textbooks have taught that China was compelled to act after American troops advanced to the border and US bombers started to drop bombs on Chinese border towns.CORONAVIRUS UPDATEGet updates direct to your inboxSIGN UP NOWBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

Fearing a full-scale US invasion, Mao Zedong overcame the opposition of many PLA generals and decided to send 300,000 troops to Korea in the name of defending the homeland.

But in the last decade, some Chinese historians have started to challenge that premise, arguing that Mao first underestimated the will of the US to intervene and supported the plan to invade the South, drawn up by the North Korean leader Kim II-sung and approved by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Following the US intervention, Mao then overestimated Washington’s strategic intentions and believed that China could be the next target.

Meanwhile, Washington failed to anticipate that China would enter the Korean war despite repeated stern warnings from the Chinese government about US troops marching to its border. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the UN force which was largely composed of US military personnel, had boasted he could have the troops back home by Christmas in 1950.

US soldiers bombard Communist-held areas during the Korean war. Photo: Reuters

US soldiers bombard Communist-held areas during the Korean war. Photo: Reuters

In the US, the Korean war is often called “the Forgotten War” or “the Unknown War”, not just because it failed to capture public attention due to heavy US censorship during the years of conflict or that it was overshadowed between World War II and the Vietnam war.

It is also because the world’s most powerful armed forces failed to triumph over the PLA, which was then vastly inferior to US firepower.That will be one of the themes Chinese leaders and state media will highlight in the upcoming commemorative activities next month as China’s military capabilities have come a long way since then.

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On August 31, a number of leading state media newspapers, including People’s Daily and the PLA Daily, started to run articles and commentaries on the Korean war.

The Economic Daily said in a commentary that the numerous risks China is facing today can be compared to the war 70 years ago, which was imposed on the country and from which there was no escape.

Obviously, the commentary refers to the rising all-round confrontation between China and the US.

Chinese military vehicles in front of Tiananmen Gate during a military parade in Beijing. Photo: AP

Chinese military vehicles in front of Tiananmen Gate during a military parade in Beijing. Photo: APInterestingly, one legacy from that Korean war involves the issue of Taiwan. Before the war started, Mao’s top priority was to train PLA forces to take over Taiwan to achieve the sacred mission of national reunification, but the war forced him to put that plan on hold. Today, Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint between China and the US. The other one is over the disputed South China Sea.But Taiwan could be the bigger threat to China-US relations as the US is seen as having taken forceful steps to change the delicate status quo in recent months. The US ramped up arms sales to Taiwan and last month US Health Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan and met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, making him the highest-ranking American official to visit the island since 1979.

US moves bolstering Taiwan are meant to ‘restore balance’, US diplomat says1 Sep 2020

On Monday, David Stilwell, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said a slew of US moves to bolster Taiwan, including visits, diplomatic support and arms sales, did not reflect a change in US policy but rather “an adjustment” in response to increased aggression from Beijing.

Chinese officials thought otherwise, seeing those adjustments as steps to change US policy which would embolden the pro-independence movement in Taiwan, including the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

In response to Azar’s visit, China last month staged a massive drill near Taiwan and mainland Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait.

Warships and fighter jets of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

Warships and fighter jets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

Meanwhile, China is also very concerned about the rising calls among former officials and analysts in the US that Washington should ditch its four-decade policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan.

Instead, the time has come for the US to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the US would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan, according to the latest article published in the online edition of Foreign Affairs magazine by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Sacks, a research fellow at the institute.They argue that Washington can make the change in a manner that is consistent with its one-China policy and thus improve deterrence and reduce the chance of war in the Taiwan Strait. They believe the policy of strategic clarity is far better than the Donald Trump administration’s current moves of symbolically upgrading the US-Taiwan relationship and calling into question the one-China policy, both of which court conflict because China’s greatest concern is that Taiwan will move forward in seeking recognition as an independent country.

China tells US to stop building relationship with Taiwan2 Sep 2020

This will raise an intriguing question over how Beijing will react if Washington ends its policy of ambiguity at a time when there are increasing discussions among China analysts that President Xi Jinping is keen to seek reunification with Taiwan, either through peaceful means or by force, within his term.

A Chinese military poster in Beijing. Photo: AP

A Chinese military poster in Beijing. Photo: AP

Meanwhile, Chinese nationalist commentators and the Global Times, a hawkish tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, have been urging the Chinese government to take aggressive military action against Taiwan.

The latest example is an alarming editorial run in the Global Times on Monday, which urged Beijing to send a stern warning to Taiwan by declaring the airspace over the island as a patrol area of the PLA Air Force.

It said the PLA’s reconnaissance aircraft and fighter jets could perform missions to declare sovereignty and check whether there are US military planes landing at Taiwan’s airports or US warships docking at its ports.

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“If the island’s military dares to fire the first shot at the PLA’s aircraft, it will mean provocation of a war, and the PLA should immediately destroy Taiwan’s military forces and achieve reunification through military means,” said the editorial penned by its editor-in-chief Hu Xijin.

Hu suggested that Beijing should look for “an appropriate opportunity” to announce and execute the decision, and this could be when US planes land in Taiwan or when even higher-ranking officials visit the island.

Under US pressure, China is planning an economy that can survive a protracted war15 Aug 2020

Apparently, the Global Times’ angry outburst stemmed from a report by a self-styled Chinese think tank called the South China Sea Probing Initiative, which erroneously claimed a US spy plane may have taken off from an airfield in Taiwan. The report was dismissed by the Taiwanese authorities as fake news.

On Tuesday, the Global Times quoted the think tank as saying that a US warship sailed in Taiwan’s waters while crossing the Taiwan Strait, which was a provocative move. But the Taiwanese Navy denied the report on the same night and blasted the think tank for spreading disinformation.

As tensions are rising and disinformation is spreading, so are the chances of miscalculations.

Wang Xiangwei

Wang Xiangwei

Wang Xiangwei was the Post’s editor-in-chief from 2012-2015. He started his 20-year career at the China Daily, before moving to the UK, where he worked at a number of news organisations, including the BBC Chinese Service. He moved to Hong Kong in 1993 and worked at the Eastern Express before joining the Post in 1996 as China business reporter. He became China editor in 2000 and deputy editor in 2007, a position he held for four years prior to being promoted to Editor-in-Chief. He has a master’s degree in journalism, and a bachelor’s degree in English.

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