China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (1): Korea, India


So the US is supposedly going to pivot to Asia and start worrying more about China. This makes sense (which is probably why we won’t do it). The Middle East has become a pretty terrible sinkhole of American power. Increasingly the verdict on the war on terrorism is negative, and we should probably retrench from the Middle East (but we won’t because of the religious right’s interest in the region). Mearsheimer argued that if it weren’t for 9/11 we probably would have focused on China a lot earlier. Kaplan sketched how the US would defeat China in a war. I argued a few years ago, at the height of the ‘China-has-changed-into-a-scary-revisionist’ hype of 2009-11, that containment of China was likely (maybe even desirable Sad smile). And clearly China’s behavior over the last few years has raised the likelihood of at least soft containment; even the Vietnamese and the Filipinos are asking for US agreements now.

But I don’t see much Western discussion of how China would/should respond. So in the tradition of those old CIA A team/B team exercises, here are five ideas for how China should/could respond to its incipient encirclement:

1. Pull Korea into its orbit by dumping NK and supporting finlandized unity.

This is such a no-brainer. China’s big regional political problem is that no one really trusts it. So its allies are lame – NK and Myanmar, and even the latter is drifting now. The best way to head off the encirclement that hammered both the Germans and the Soviets in the 20th C is to break the ring with some decent allies, and nasty, dependent dictatorships are not enough. SK is a pretty central link in any containment ring around China, but one where China has a lot of leverage.

Before the 20th C, Korea was Confucian China’s closest ally/subordinate for a millennium. Korean culture is very close to China (even if modern nationalist Koreans don’t want to admit it): the language is shot through with Sinic roots, the philosophy of Confucianism comes from China, social traditions are similar (food, dress, etc.). Koreans will not tell you that China is a big enemy of Korea, no matter how many Japanese and US scholars, pundits, etc. say it is. I see this in class and at conferences all the time. Structural realism and liberalism both say that Japan and Korea should ally against China and NK. Nope! The average Korean just won’t buy that no matter how many times you repeat your IR logic. Instead, he thinks that Japan, and even the US, is a greater threat to Korea than China. Dokdo activates Koreans a lot more than China’s growth.

Also Korea has a long tradition of anti-Americanism too. Yes, they are a good ally to the US, but mostly because they need us a lot more than most US allies, not because they really like us that much. Lots of Koreans that I meet think that the US is heavily responsible for the division of the country, bullies SK leaders, forces unfair trade deals on the country, sends pot-smoking English teacher to prey on their young girls, etc. All this may or may not be true – hold that thought – but consider what an opening this gives China.

Finally, Koreans really want unity, and China is probably best placed to give it to them (more so than the US actually). I have written about this a lot before, but if we accept that NK is all but dependent on China now, then China could basically force a deal in which Korea got unity on southern terms, but only if US Forces in Korea left. Yes, lots of Chinese see NK as a buffer between the robust democracies of Japan, SK, and the US. But NK is a losing horse. Someday it will crash and burn, and how much does it really help China now anyway? Its elites are so unpredictable than the CCP must always be wondering wth they will do this week. A Chinese-backed finlandized unification would electrify the region, neutralize a major link in the ring, isolate Japan, and confuse the US (would the US oppose unity to keep troops in Korea and Japan?).

2. Keep flattering India.

India and China will never be too close (barring a democratic revolution in China). Their long border and history of tension makes the relationship tough. But China would at least benefit if India did not throw in its lot completely with the US camp in Asia. In 2010, I predicted that India would have US bases within the decade because of the almost tailor-made fit between India and the US. That is, both India and the US share both values (liberal democracy) and security concerns (salafism and China). No other major US ally has that nice contiguity (see the chart below). But a tight Indo-US link would be clearly worsen China’s position, complementing the current tight US-Japan link and providing an obvious anchor on the other side to a ring running from Japan through Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. That really would be encirclement along the lines of what happened to Germany before 1914. But India isn’t really following this script. They’re hedging the US somewhat, and the evolution of the responsibility to protect into triumphalist western regime chagne in Libya looks to New Dehli like neocolonialism all over again. There’s an ‘BRICS solidarity’ opening for China here. Given the India is still pretty soft on American option, a charm offensive, however humbling, would be wise.









Great Britain/NATO








Japan/East Asia












Part two will come in 3 days.

Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva.

13 thoughts on “China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (1): Korea, India

  1. Pingback: China’s Counter to the Asian ‘Pivot’ (2): ‘Swarms’ in the Pacific | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  2. From Pete Speer (
    Interesting analysis. But not completely accurate. You are viewing the PRC from the Pacific Ocean (and the Indian Ocean,
    China is not encircled, not even en-semicircled. One must consider the land side of China as well. A huge area has been omitted in which the PRC has been diligently engaged. From the weak Russian Far East running anti-clockwise through the barren lands of Mongolia, around to the resource rich ex-Soviet ‘Stans, and the complicated but close alliances with Iran and Pakistan, plus the economic advantage it is taking in Afghanistan, the PRC is expanding.

    Within the eastern semi-circle, it is about to swallow whole Taiwan and pressing its power advantage on the Philippines and around the littoral of the South China Sea.

    The keys lie in its developing relationships with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.


  3. Agree with you on the Sino-Korean historical-cultural affinities. However:
    1. South Korea isn’t keen on re-uniting with the North any time soon. The economic disparities are immense, much greater in degree than east and west germany.
    2. What makes one think N. Korea will be successfully strong-armed? So far they’ve been playing a deft game. Does Russia want a united Korea? Of course not. They too want a buffer against the west, and to a large degree, not add to the political heft China already adds to their weak Far East.
    So far N. Korea plays a deft hand in balancing China and Russia.

    3. Assuming a united Korea falling within Sino-sphere, it would make it that much harder to restraint Japan from re-militarizing.

    An interesting idea for sure, but not much chance in my humble estimation.

    • Thanks for reading.
      1. I agree, but Germans in the mid-80s said the same thing. But when the actual opportunity presented itself, nationalism exploded out of nowhere in support of unity. I predict the same here.
      2.Well if NK is as dependent on China as everyone says, then the Chinese could do a lot to push it over the edge. I think the cost-benefit analysis on NK is changing in China. That’s what we hear a lot at the conferences. They know it’s a loser that will blow up badly one day. It would be smart to get in front of that rather than alienating SK by propping up a nasty dictatorship indefinitely.
      3. I’m not arguing that Korea would be an ally, but ‘finlandized,’ neutral. Japan’s financial and demographic problems are so extreme, I find the common concern out here that it will remilitarize very unlikely. Besides if Japan doesn’t really re-arm, but the Americans stay in Asia in force, isn’t that even worse?

      Thanks for coming.

      • Hi thanks for responding.

        1. East German net house-hold income was 35% of West’s (,1518,717136,00.html) and even after all that money spent (well in excess of trillion), and annual $10+B special assistance to East still, the net family income in East’s still only at 55% of West.
        Disparity between North and South Korea is almost 13:1. If South Koreans are every bit as good at math as common stereotypes hold….
        But you are right, nationalism is a potent force. One could never predict what happens.

        2. It’s said that China’s got an hammer when it comes to North Korea: all China could offer is economic assistance. That hasn’t translated into tangible influence in the past. NK hadn’t allowed much Chinese investment or influence in the past until Kim JungIl. Maybe this too will change under his son.

        3. Japan is already re-militarizing, just at a slower pace(it has “helicopter carriers” even). It has the capability to turn overnight into a nuclear power again. And whenever it sets it mind to a mission, Japan can be fanatically dedicated.
        America is a benign force with whom China had little historical baggage or bones to pick. I tend to think it’s not a matter of America out of Asia as that will never be (or possible), but about stepping back to give China space to develop its regional hegemony as China sees is its historical right.
        Besides, I think Japan will not be neutral or docile until it sees the strategic game as lost, which is when the Chinese gains a credible blue water navy, and has Taiwan subsumed within its defense realm(peacefully). Until then, I tend to believe America is preferred by China to keep Japan relatively pacifist.

        Thanks again

  4. Do you see human rights as part of this encirclement? Not a realist factor, like territory or militaries. But I think China may see that as part of an isolation strategy and/or one designed to limit China’s rise. You mention how China has no real friends, except for decrepit dictatorships. This is in large part because China lacks soft power, presenting itself as an unattractive ally. It has client states and general beneficiaries of its largess but few real friends. Most of the world today is either a liberal or electoral democracy, and China seems like a throwback to an earlier era. US criticism of Chinese human rights can be part of effort to keep China from being more than a wealthy benefactor.

    Also, human rights rhetoric challenges China’s prized sovereignty. Pressure on China to allow more dissent or democracy could be viewed by the CCP as threatening its survival. Not quite as threatening as an India-Japan containment but threatening.

    I would appreciate comments. Thank you.

    • I hadn’t thought about using human rights as part of the pivot. My sense is that the US has toned down that sort of rhetoric since Obama came into office. We now borrow so much money from China, that we risk a tiff with our ‘banker’ if we talk this way too much. Both Clinton and Geithner have gone to Beijing, basically pleading with the Chinese to continue buying T-bills.
      I also haven’t seen this theme in the discussions of the pivot to date. It looks like straight realism to me.

  5. Firstly, India will never come closer to China, BRICS notwithstanding. China sees India as a competitor (read rival) both economically as well as politically/militarily. So long as the border demarcation issue remains unresolved, India will view China as an enemy. Remember, India fully subscribes to the view that China is encircling India through its string of pearls policy.
    Secondly, it is difficult for China to ditch NK. There are far too many skeletons in the Chinese cupboard which may keep tumbling out if NK is dumped.

    India with its Look East policy will only be too keen to tie up with the US in the Pacific. It is in India’s interest to forge closer ties with the US particularly in the Asia-Pacific region considering China’s bellicose attitude in the South China Sea and India’s economic interests (exploration of gas with Vietnam in South China Sea).

    • That’s what I thought too when I wrote that article in 2010. But India is not really following the pivot. They’re drifting around looking for a role that is subordinate to neither China or the US. But all China needs to do is keep India out of the American camp.

      I hadn’t thought that NK could blackmail China like this. What secrets are you thinking of?

  6. i would like to participate myself starting from this point of time….Robert you have solid points….INDIAN

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