General He Lei recalls the PLA’s successful expulsion of American troops from North Korea in 1950 as he warns that China will be “ready for war” amid growing tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Seventy years ago, in October 1950, Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. Labelled the ‘People’s Volunteers’ they set out to confront an imminent threat to their homeland. General Douglas MacArthur, leading a United States coalition against Pyongyang, had succeeded not only in thwarting Kim Il Sung’s bid to take the South, but sought to advance beyond the 38th parallel to terminate the DPRK altogether.
He made no secret about what he planned to do next: he spoke of “continuing” the Korean War into China and dropping a number of atomic bombs around the border to nullify Beijing’s strategic influence on the neighbouring peninsula. Fearing strategic encirclement and checkmate by Washington, Mao Zedong decided to intervene in the war, sending millions of troops into Korea. Despite at that time being an impoverished country with an essentially peasant army; China’s forces overran the UN coalition and forced them back into the South.
The memories in Beijing of what they describe as the “war to resist American aggression” have not been forgotten. The successful intervention into the Korean War and the rescue of the DPRK against a far superior opponent is heralded as the symbolic end to “China’s century of humiliation” by Western powers and newly found confidence in itself.
The time that has elapsed since this battle hasn’t made it any less relevant. Facing an increasingly hostile United States on the global stage, People’s Liberation Army General He Lei recalled the victory of 1950 in a jibe against Washington, saying China “[has] the will to fight and the confidence to win” and “We will work hard to cultivate the will to fight, strengthen our sense of mission, responsibility and urgency to be ready for war.”
The highly charged comments reflect the growing atmosphere of public fear as to whether these two powers will ultimately clash militarily, especially given America’s escalation of tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait by ramping up military exercises.
Some scholars have often spoken of the ‘Thucydides Trap’, inspired by the wars between Athens and Sparta, whereby two great powers become locked in a spiralling rivalry which leads, inevitably, to war. With China the rising power and the US the “status quo” eager to suppress Beijing’s rise, one wonders what the eventual outcome will be.
Whilst General He’s remarks were not an accident, China’s leaders are by no means seeking a physical conflict with the US, or even an outright quest for hegemony. Although America’s leaders constantly frame Beijing as a “threat,” in practice this is misleading and is based on dated Cold War clichés and deliberate fearmongering to manufacture consent for US foreign policy.
Beijing has no serious intention of waging a zero-sum cold war struggle against Washington, nor does it attempt to proliferate its ideology overseas. It would much rather maintain productive ties with America and seek a stable international environment in order to secure continuing economic growth.
Yet this isn’t where we are. International relations are not about “good intentions.” A neo-realist will tell you it is the structural implications of the global system which forces states to respond to their environment. China is not seeking confrontation with the US, but the past few years nevertheless oblige Beijing, whether they like it or not, to respond to this environment and prepare for it.
Washington is aiming to strategically encircle China’s periphery through visions such as ‘The Indo-Pacific’, increasing support to Taiwan and escalation in the South China Sea. As a result, Xi Jinping has no choice but to respond to these efforts, just as China did in Korea in 1950, otherwise he risks being strategically outplayed. Passivity and good will towards the United States won’t change the situation.
Whilst General He’s opinion represents a militarist view, and not one publicly spoken by China’s civilian leaders, his appearance in the international media is not an ad-hoc event or mere coincidence. The messaging is deliberate: Beijing is not openly looking for a fight, but what the historical legacy of the Korean War shows us is that it is prepared to do what it feels is needed in order to protect its strategic proximity.
China will continue to try and talk Washington out of its current path, but to only do such would be ignoring the military dynamic at its own peril. Therefore, whilst nobody can truly say how this growing confrontation will end, talk of a ‘Thucydides Trap’ ultimately matters. China is confident, but cautious.