Chinese President Xi Jinping has used the 70th anniversary of his country’s entry into the Korean War to unleash a bombastic speech, full of defiant, nationalistic rhetoric. Amongst several newsworthy phrases, Xi declared:
The Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand – to fight war with war and stop an invasion with force, earning peace and security through victory. The Chinese people will not create trouble but nor are we afraid, and no matter the difficulties or challenges that we face, our legs will not shake and our backs will not bend.
The timing of the anniversary is apt for Xi, coming just before the opening of the fifth plenary session of the 19th Communist Party Central Committee, during which China’s five year economic and development plan will be unveiled, in addition to Vision 2035, Xi’s blueprint for raising his people to high-income status. There is also the small matter of the US presidential election on the 3rd November at a time when Sino-American relations have reached a nadir since the normalisation of ties between the two superpowers.
Whilst Xi did not mention the US by name in his Korean War anniversary speech, the ‘Imperialist invaders’ he referred to ‘firing on the doorsteps of a new China’ could hardly be mistaken. Having repelled the initial invasion of South Korea by the communist North, and restored the boundary at the 38th Parallel, the US-led UN mission continued its offensive into North Korean territory until the Chinese border was in sight. A concerned Mao Zedong, potentially at the behest of Joseph Stalin but likely also driven by his own desires and internal pressures, decided to act.
On the 14th October 1950, 300,000 Chinese troops stormed across the Yalu River to attack the advancing UN forces. They were poorly-equipped but battle-hardened, having just emerged victorious in the Chinese Civil War. Mao would not countenance an American ally on his southern border and was prepared to sacrifice as many of his men as it would take to rebuff the ‘imperialist’ advance.
Mao’s ruthless expenditure of his own people is now legendary but back in 1950 it was not wholly clear to what desperate lengths he would go to push back the Western troops and curry favour with Stalin. After a few battles and skirmishes, the UN command was under no illusions. Unless they wanted to get bogged down in a protracted, unwinnable war – precisely what would later happen in Vietnam – they would need to negotiate an armistice.
As Jung Chang and Jon Halliday note in their biography of the Chinese dictator:
Mao knew that America just would not be able to compete in sacrificing men…[he] was convinced that America could not defeat him, because of his one fundamental asset – millions of expendable Chinese, including quite a few that he was pretty keen to get rid of. In fact, the war provided a perfect chance to consign former Nationalist [Kuomintang] troops to their deaths. These were men who had surrendered wholesale in the last stages of the civil war, and it was a deliberate decision on Mao’s part to send them into Korea, where they formed the bulk of the Chinese forces. In case UN troops should fail to do the job, there were special execution squads in the rear to take care of anyone hanging back (Chang & Halliday, p. 442)
A terrifying man, but one still revered by huge segments of the Chinese population, including the main main himself, Xi. The current president looks set to rule for life, or at least until physical or mental incapacitation prevents him from doing so. He has cultivated a strongman image at odds with Deng Xiaoping and his other post-Mao predecessors, striking a more assertive posture for China on the global stage, whilst seemingly reveling in America’s internal turmoil.
Xi’s ruthless purges – disguised as corruption investigations – of his political enemies, his mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, militarisation of the South China Sea, suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and threats towards Taiwan are testament to a revisionist mindset not content with the status quo. With America withering under the self-destructive rule of the Trump administration, Xi has every reason to feel emboldened and his brazen speech over the Korean War anniversary is no surprise.
With China’s economy already rebounding from the coronavirus-inspired slump, and its military being modernised and streamlined so that it is far more evenly-matched with its American counterpart than it was in 1950, the outcome of a Sino-American war is far from a foregone conclusion.
To prevent such a terrifying prospect occurring, to prevent another Korea or Vietnam, the next American administration needs to re-engage with Beijing. Washington should itself be assertive in its demands for responsible Chinese behaviour on the global stage, whilst seeking areas of common ground on which to build at least civil relations.
As ties between the two countries continue to sever, the potential for a grave misunderstanding in one of the myriad flashpoint zones of the Asia-Pacific could create the unthinkable and wind the clock back seventy years; American and Chinese forces shooting it out with one another, only with far more deadly weaponry and millions more lives at stake.
Chang, J. & Halliday, J. Mao: the Unknown Story (2007)