When Mao Zedong’s People’s Volunteer Army turned back the US Eighth Army in December 1950, it inflicted what is still known today as the longest retreat in American military history.
The battle of Ch’ongch’on has taken on even more significance as the drum beat sounds louder of another conflict between China and the US.
Last year, at the 70th anniversary of China’s triumph, Xi Jinping warned the Chinese people “the road ahead will not be smooth”. He called on people to revive the spirit of the Korean War, to “speak to invaders in the language they know … to use war to prevent war”.
Simply: tell the Americans that China is not afraid, it was victorious once, and will be again.
China, Xi said, won “with less steel and more spirit”. The forces of China and North Korea, he said, “defeated their armed to teeth rival and shattered the myth of invincibility of the US Army”.
Korea is known as the “forgotten war”. America and allies prefer to commemorate FWorld War I and II victories. But in China, the battle of Ch’ongch’on is as revered as D-Day.
A Chinese state media opinion piece last year warned the US that victory in Korea “is a reminder that China has never been afraid”.
War was once unthinkable
Make no mistake: we are now in a phase of preparation for war. China is becoming more aggressive in tone and actions, while the US is strengthening its regional alliances.
War that was once unthinkable is now improbable — but not impossible. Since the US declared China a “strategic competitor” in 2017, tension has heightened.
America and China have already fought a trade war; they are waging war in cyberspace and there are red lines that could trigger a full-blown confrontation.
China’s Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times last year warned the US not to “play with fire”. The editorial cautioned America to stay out of China’s “core interests”.
Those core interests are the disputed islands of the South China Sea — now claimed and militarised by China — and Taiwan.
President Xi has committed himself to reuniting the island with the China Mainland by force if necessary.
Xi cannot back down and the US cannot be made to look weak lest it relinquish its regional dominance. As the Chinese say: two tigers cannot live on the same mountain.
Any conflict would ‘get worse before it gets worse’
Harvard University military historian Graham Allison says any conflict would “get worse before it gets worse”, meaning it will escalate to drag in countries throughout the Indo-Pacific, perhaps even globally.
The author of the book Destined for War, Allison says it could become a nuclear war.
Australia is in the crosshairs of this new great power rivalry: on one side the US, our key strategic ally, and on the other our biggest trading partner, China.
Gone is the idea that we don’t have to choose. Australia has chosen the US. We are paying a price with a deteriorating relationship with China and our exporters are suffering.
Australia has updated its defence strategic outlook boosting military spending by $270 billion over the next decade. It’s a reflection of an increasingly hostile outlook.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has characterised this moment as one “that is poorer, that is more dangerous and that is more disorderly”.
The so-called Quad grouping — Australia, India, Japan and US — is stepping up its cooperation to try to contain or thwart China’s ambitions and increasing aggressiveness.
The Quad has been widely praised as an example of a resurgent democratic alliance in Asia. Yet questions remain, particularly about India and Japan.
Questions about the quad
Tokyo has so far successfully (more successfully than Australia) managed its relationship with China, its biggest trading partner — despite historic enmity and ongoing territorial disputes.
Japan has avoided the types of trade bans China has applied to Australia. Would it risk its interests to defend Australia?
Of course, Japan is closely aligned to the US. But there are those who have questioned America’s resolve and in recent years — particularly under former Prime Minister Abe — there has been a push for Japan to reform its pacifist constitution and strengthen its military posture.
And what of India? It clashed with China last year along their disputed border, with casualties on both sides. It has a long history of remaining non-aligned. It faces a nuclear armed hostile neighbour, Pakistan, that has close ties with China.
India faces much more immediate and perilous threats than Australia. Would it stay the course if tensions escalate?
And, in seeking to counter China, we excuse the worst aspects of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modhi. An autocratic figure once banned from entering the US who promotes Hindu nationalism, he is accused of suppressing the votes of Muslims and other minorities and winding back media freedom.
India and Japan also pursue their own international relationships and have close ties to countries hostile to the US.
India has relied on Russia as its biggest weapons supplier and tacitly supported Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
Delhi has brokered its own trilateral arrangement with Moscow and Tokyo in part to assuage Russian concern about the Quad.
Japan has maintained strong relations with Iran, something it shares with China.
A ‘realist view’ of the world order
The Quad is not as air-tight as its champions may want us to believe.
To China, the Quad is a Cold War-style bloc. It appears as a 20th century solution — maintaining US hegemony — to a 21st century problem of incorporating and balancing rising Chinese authoritarian power. Clearly this is an historical moment that, as history reminds us, if mishandled can end in disaster.
The emergence of big powers unsettles the world. Britain’s empire was built on brutal colonisation and war, including war with China.
American imperialism came with annexing territory in the Pacific and the Caribbean, claiming places like Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam and American Samoa.
We should not be surprised at China’s territorial claims or its aggression. The ruthless excesses of Xi Jinping can’t be ignored and nations like Australia are right to defend their interests.
So, what to do?
Former Australian prime minister, China diplomat and now head of the Asia Society think tank, Kevin Rudd, has set out an argument for what he calls “managed strategic competition”. Rudd calls it a “realist view” of the world order.
He writes: “It accepts that states will continue to seek security by building a balance of power in their favour … The trick in this case is to reduce the risk to both sides as the competition between them unfolds by jointly crafting a limited number of rules of the road that will help prevent war.”
Rudd concedes this is easier said than done, given “the near complete erosion of trust”. He’s echoing the sentiment of another former prime minister, Paul Keating, who in a speech in 2014 asked if it was time to build a new strategic order.
American power was no longer uncontested, Keating argued, and China’s rise was undeniable. The problem, he said, was that both China and America had deeply divergent views of regional power and negotiation had not yet truly begun.
So it remains in 2021
What we have instead is hawkish talk of war, a military build-up, and Cold War alliances. The battle of Ch’ongch’on 70 years ago can be seen today as a harbinger of American decline.
What followed was war and retreat in Vietnam, endless conflict in Afghanistan — where the Taliban remains entrenched, the folly of the invasion of Iraq that removed a brutal dictator in Saddam Hussein but left a destabilised, ravaged country ripe for terrorist insurgency like Islamic State, financial crisis, deep social and political division and the upheaval and trauma of the Trump presidency.
For all America’s economic and military might, it is a deeply damaged nation seeking to recapture its former glory in a world where it meets a rival of enormous and growing strength.
China remembers the Korean War while America tries to forget it. The ghosts of wars past are stirring again.
Yet there is another lesson of history: America helped open up China; its markets made China rich.
China even at its most bellicose and belligerent knows war with America would be catastrophic.
The two nations have been better as “friends” than “enemies”.