Korean peninsula policy is conflicted and counterproductive, argues Shen Zhihua 沈志华 East China Normal University: China needs to alter the ‘Three Nos’ policy (no unification, no war, no chaos) that preserves the status quo. A transcription of Shen’s 19 March 2017 lecture in Dalian, placing China-Korea relations in historical perspective, has topped the Aisixiang analytical website’s weekly ratings since it first appeared.

Shen argues that while China needs a stable neighbourhood for its development and the success of Belt and Road, serious issues persist with most of its neighbours, especially at the Korean peninsula, which harms regional stability and thus prospects for China’s development. The status quo is, given both Koreas seek unification, a fertile source of tension, he says. Based on irreconcilable interests, China’s alliance with North Korea is, in Shen’s view, inherently contradictory.

The decision to go nuclear was, notes Shen, rooted in North Korea’s strategic isolation following loss of the nuclear umbrella provided by the Soviet Union and China. China’s opening of relations with South Korea in 1992 dealt the North an irreconcilable sense of betrayal. It will, he warns, keep conducting nuclear tests, destabilising China’s neighbourhood.

The tests lead in turn to a cycle of rising US-led military pressure, says Shen, completely against China’s interests. North Korea is a lesser worry for the US, he argues, giving the latter a pretext for exercises, moving its fleet and THAAD into the region in order to contain China’s rise, with Japan in its wake. Both China and South Korea, Shen finds, are losers in this cycle, facing nuclear pollution and accident risks.

Beijing’s handling of the THAAD issue draws severe criticism from Shen: it pushes South Korea further into the orbit of Japan and the US. Yet South Korea is, he says, given its cultural and historical affinities and economic complementarity, a potentially valuable partner. The current rift in its relations with China, in Shen’s opinion, serves only the US and North Korea.

China should, urges Shen, support South Korea’s drive for peaceful reunification. While there would be some fallout, they constitute manageable risks. A unified Korea would not, in Shen’s view, destabilise the border, nor would refugee outflow be insurmountable (especially given China’s experience with refugees in the Northeast). The economic benefits for the Northeast, currently a rustbelt, would be huge, he adds. China should work towards restoring mutual trust with the US, Shen concludes, calling for a ‘return to Yalta’.