As the United States and South Korea carry out their annual military exercise, known as Vigilant Ace, Pyongyang is responding with its usual bluster.
North Korea’s state-run news service denounced the exercise, which this year involves some 230 aircraft and tens of thousands of troops, as an “all-out provocation.” It accused President Trump of “begging for nuclear war.”
But ignore the yapping of Little Rocket Man’s minions for a minute.
The more important question by far is: What will China do?
How will China react if the U.S. and South Korea actually attempt to destroy Kim Jong Un’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons? Or if the two allies launch a decapitation strike against the North Korea leadership targeted at Kim himself? Or both?
One thing China has already done is engage in its own show of force. China’s air force is staging drills over the Yellow and East seas near the Korean peninsula. According to air force spokesman Shen Jinke, PLA air force planes are flying “routes and areas they have never flown before.”
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie explained that Monday’s high-profile announcement by the PLA was “a warning to Washington and Seoul not to provoke Pyongyang any further.”
President Xi Jinping may not like some of Kim Jong Un’s behavior, but history shows that China will come to the defense of its tributary state if it is threatened.
When Japan attacked Korea in 1895, imperial China immediately dispatched its army to aid its beleaguered vassal state. The Chinese were defeated, and Korea was ruled by Tokyo until the end of WWII, but they still tried.
China intervened again in late 1950, after Kim Il Sung’s offensive against the south was broken by American forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. The desperate North Korean leader turned to China for help, and Chairman Mao promptly responded with a grand imperial gesture, throwing a huge “volunteer” army into the fray.
Kim’s half-kingdom was saved, and the Korean Peninsula has remained divided between the democratic south and the communist north to the present day. China’s leaders obviously intend to keep it that way.
There is little doubt that, if need be, China will intervene again to pull Kim Jong Un’s irons out of the fire.
That is why China, alone among all the nations of the world, maintains a mutual defense treaty with the pariah state of North Korea. That treaty guarantees that China will come to the aid of its North Korean ally if the latter is attacked.
Clearly, without the protection offered by nearby China, without access to its technology, without its missile and reactor components, without its ongoing trading relationship with its giant neighbor, North Korea would never have become the kind of threat that it is today.
Whatever his real concerns about Kim’s nuclear ambitions, Xi Jinping will refuse to abandon the PRC’s only ally unless he is left with no other options.
Like Chairman Mao Zedong before him, Xi sees North Korea as a critical buffer state between China and the U.S. and South Korea. The collapse of North Korea would bring U.S. troops right up to the Yalu River. The reunification of the Korean Peninsula would put a vibrant free market democracy right on China’s doorstep.
Compared to this Chinese nightmare, Kim Jong Un’s missile tests, his underground nuclear explosions, and his dangerous rhetoric are far lesser threat.
Xi Jinping may not like Kim Jong Un, who is widely mocked in China as “Kim Fatty the Third,” very much.
But it is certain that he absolutely detests the idea of unified and democratic Republic of Korea, armed with American weapons and backed by American troops, on the other side of the Yalu River.
Chairman Mao often described the strategic relationship between China and North Korea as being “As close as lips and teeth,” and worried that “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” (Chun wang chi han).
To prevent China’s “teeth” from getting “cold,” Xi would almost certainly send his legions across the Yalu River to protect the “lips” if North Korea was attacked.
Steven W. Mosher is the author of the newly published Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order (Regnery).
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.