What Syria and the South China Sea may have in Common

China’s foreign ministry summoned the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Robert Wang, to make “serious representations” about remarks by the US State Department raising concerns over tensions in the disputed South China Sea. The statement by the State Department had been published on Friday, and was authored by Patrick Ventrell at the office of press relations.

Lin Zexu says

Lin Zexu says

While urging all parties to take steps to lower tensions in keeping with the spirit of the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the press release does, in its criticism of recent developments, emphasize China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there “in particular”. The statement doesn’t include remarks about the passage of a Vietnamese law earlier this summer, declaring sovereignty over areas of the Spratly and Paracel Islands and to come into effect at the beginning of next year, or the initiation of Vietnamese patrol flights in June this year, for example.

We do not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features and have no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, says the State Department’s press release of Friday, however, […]

It’s a pretty elaborate However.

More to the point, the statement does also urge all parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention.

With the statement, the U.S. positions itself on Vietnam’s side – hence Beijing’s representations -, but stops short of committing itself to practical or military measures that would support Vietnam.

It would help if all claimants were prepared to accept a verdict from the  International Tribunal For the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) – and Xinhua happily points out that not only China is cherry-picking when it comes to international law. If the case was brought to the court by all parties involved, however, and if all parties were prepared to accept the court’s verdict, the judges could hardly refuse to accept the case.

And the mention of international law by the State Department is crucial: after all,  Beijing wants to negotiate with every single claimant, one by one. It wants to control the process not only bilaterally, but in effect unilaterally.

Is it wise for the U.S. to position itself as clearly as the Ventrell statement does? That’s no easy question – and the answer would need to include hints to an American ability not to “disappoint” Hanoi, as this would probably damage the limited and informal alliance with Vietnam.

But anyone who demands or welcomes steps towards democratization in international relations should – logically – welcome both China’s and Russia’s role at the UN when it comes to Syria, and America’s role in the South China Sea.

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Related

» China doesn’t object to Hegemonism, July 13, 2012
» Vietnam’s Contributions, Greatly Appreciated, State Department, July 10, 2012

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52 Responses to “What Syria and the South China Sea may have in Common”

  1. First, you suggest that China is somehow in violation of international law by choosing to negotiate bilaterally. Not the case. Nations are free to negotiate disputed borders with other countries bilaterallly or via a third party.

    Next, your claim is that China’s actions in the UN to prevent a replay of Libya in Syria – that is, to prevent a clear violation of one of the core principles of international law and the United Nations – is equivalent to the United States’ involvement in a territorial dispute it is not a party to, as a ‘strategic balancer’ vis-a-vis against a regional power: China. You make this argument not by looking at things through the lens of international law and obligations, but introducing a different concept – the ‘democratization of international relations’ (btw apparently you are using China’s definition of the term). Pre-US pivot and increased US influence in the dispute, the argument would have some merit. But with the involvement of the world’s single most powerful country – a country that has shown time and time again it views itself completely unrestrained by international law – the argument fails. For US+ASEAN > China. By your own logic, we are now compelled to support China if we are to realize the ‘democratization of international relations’ (China’s definition).

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  2. @Enoch – China’s economy is now approximately just over half the size of the US’s. At some point we’re going to have to drop the ‘China as underdog’ line. In fact, given the disparity between China and the other ASEAN countries, in matters regarding the South China sea that time already came a few years back when PRC military spending exceeded the combined total of all countries bordering the PRC.

    As for what exactly the ‘core principles’ of the UN are that are protected by preventing effective sanctions to be directed against a dictator who makes use of heavy weapons against his own people and threatens the security of neighbouring countries, I am somewhat confused. The PRC government had no problems voting for a no-fly zone in the case of Libya and knew full-well that the wording of the Libya resolution allowed ground strikes – the difference for Libya was that Gaddafi had actually made an enemy out of the PRC in much the same way he had other countries. PRC representatives met with the transitional government months before Gaddafi fell, and once his government was toppled the flags were switched over at the Libyan Embassy in Beijing without any further ado.

    The difference between Libya and Syria is not one of principle but one of interests – Assad has not spent nearly so much time thumbing his nose at the rest of the world, has made close links with Russia and China. Were his government to be toppled (and from the look of things, this seems likely within the next six months) Chinese interests would suffer.

    As for America considering itself unrestrained by international law, we have to ask why, if that is the case, China even bothered vetoing the resolution? Actually it appears that the US will not do anything against Syrian, at least not yet, unless they can get a resolution. Therefore, at least in this case, it does appear that the US is restrain by international law.

    We may also ask whether the PRC has ever acted in a way that showed that its government considered themselves to be restrained by international law. This is hard to say. Even ignoring domestic human rights abuses, the PRC is one of the few countries to have actively made war on the United Nations, at various times supplied weapons to half the world’s insurgencies, sheltered and supplied Pol Pot, invaded Vietnam. The suspicion has to be that were the US not to support the ASEAN countries, the disputes ongoing in the South China Sea would be settled eventually by force.

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  3. @foarp

    Yes, as some point we will have to drop the ‘China as underdog’ (vis-a-vis the US) line, but it is likely decades in the future, not around the corner. And if only China and ASEAN countries were involved, I’d be inclined to agree with the spirit of the post, hence I wrote: “Pre-US pivot and increased US influence in the dispute, the argument would have some merit.”

    Don’t know what you are talking about in paragraph #2, since China voted FOR sanctions against Libya when Gaddafi was in power (Feb 26, 2011), and ABSTAINED in the no-fly vote (Mar 17, 2011). China began to strongly criticize the NATO-led action when it expanded from protecting civilians to assisting the rebels to topple the regime.

    I haven’t seen any evidence that Libya and China were enemies, although there was friction between the two as China’s influence increased in Africa. In any case, there were extensive economic relations, particularly in oil.

    In paragraph #4 you claim that “it appears that the US will not do anything against Syrian (sic), at least not yet, unless they can get a resolution.” You may want to consult google about a secret US authorization to depose the Assad regime, issued earlier this year. Restraint, yeah.

    As to the 5th paragraph, it’s so over the top I can’t muster a reply. Maybe in the morning after coffee.

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  4. FOARP. I’d go with Enoch on the secret US authorisation. Reported on BBC three nights ago.

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  5. If the report of US support for the rebels is true, then at least we may say that the US has been constrained from openly supporting the rebels through airstrikes and the rest.

    At any rate, like I said, I give Assad six months, after which the PRC and Russia may be given cause to rue their support for his bankrupt regime.

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  6. As an example of just how isolated the Assad regime has become, you could not get much better the apparent defection of his prime minister that just occured: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2012/aug/06/syria-crisis-state-tv-explosion-live

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  7. @Enoch:

    First, you suggest that China is somehow in violation of international law by choosing to negotiate bilaterally. Not the case. Nations are free to negotiate disputed borders with other countries bilaterallly or via a third party.

    I think you are referring to these lines from my post: And the mention of international law by the State Department is crucial: after all, Beijing wants to negotiate with every single claimant, one by one. It wants to control the process not only bilaterally, but in effect unilaterally.
    Can’t see though how these or other lines would suggest that China is somehow in violation of international law. It does mean to point out, however, that the U.S. role in the dispute is welcome to many claimants, and that this should be no surprise, given Beijing’s approach.

    By your own logic, we are now compelled to support China if we are to realize the ‘democratization of international relations’ (China’s definition) (also from your first comment).

    That’s a logic I’m thinking about, Enoch. I’m no politician – I’m a blogger, and therefore quite free to write about my thoughts, even before arriving at actual conclusions. Different people may read my post in different ways, but as far as I can see, I took a guarded approach with this post, considering if there may be something to that concept (of “democratization” of international relations). This doesn’t compell anyone to take a certain view – not even me.

    @Foarp:

    In my view, the American, Saudi-Arabian etc. policies on Syria are unlawful. I’m no lawyer, and won’t be able to quote the law that would apply right away, but I might find time for that tomorrow night. As for the “responsibility to protect”, it isn’t only China or Russia who view the concept with skepticism; Brazil and India have their reservations, too. I can see that the 1973 resolution opened every option for the allied countries – but I can also see why some governments aren’t prepared to open every option, once again. The 1973 resolution was not to topple Gaddafi – but it was one of the undeclared/semi-declared goal of the mandated forces.

    The Assad regime probably failed as soon as they – reportedly – opened fire on civilans in the early stage of the uprising. But if it is the task of Riyadh or Washington to replace a regime for that kind of failure is, in my view, a completely different question. All arms suppliers – Russia, Saudi Arabia and whoever else – have fanned the civil war – and no matter who is going to emerge as the “winners” among the Syrians (the incumbents or any kind of opposition), they will take revenge on the defeated (and they’ll apply a very broad definition of who belonged to either side). Until then, and during the “days of reckoning after that, we will see much more bloodshed than during the past seventeen months. Neither the “friends of Syria”, nor the “friends of the regime” have put the Syrians first.

    I’ll catch up with you again tomorrow. Please feel free to continue the discussion today, too – and if any commenter should join just to try to derail the discussion, please moderate this thread by yourselves – by simply ignoring such comments. (This should be an interesting bozhu experiment.)

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  8. One more remark: can’t see why Foarp’s fifth paragraph should be “over the top”.

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  9. @foarp

    I don’t see how secret authorization to topple a foreign government can be taken as restraint.

    @justrecently

    Glad we apparently agree that China is not violating international law in the South China Sea.

    On my second cup of coffee, so now I can write that I think @Foarp’s graph #5 is way over the top. I’m supposed to believe that asking whether China has ever followed international law is a serious question? Especially after we apparently agree that China has broached no international law in the South China Sea, and China follows the letter and spirit of the UN Charter as regards Libya and Syria?

    Foarp then makes the baseless, tendentious claim that China ‘made war’ against the UN. In fact China only entered the conflict when ‘UN’ forces (scarequotes are appropriate, everyone knew the UN was a fig leaf) exceeded their mandate to drive North Korea back to the 38th parallel, and attempted to ‘roll back Communist aggression’ (plus the 7th fleet in the Taiwan Straits).

    As to China’s support for insurgencies, the vast majority of this support occurred before China was a member of the UN. They also happened when China was under a revolutionary leadership that had the goal of transforming international relationships, not upholding them. Worthy of criticism, but those were the informal rules of the Cold War. China no longer plays by those rules, but other countries apparently do. The strongest evidence of China’s violation of international law is the invasion of Vietnam. There was no territorial dispute, it was purely big power politics involving Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

    Foarp concludes by saying that without the US, China would be inclined to solve territorial disputes through force. We’ve just seen that Vietnam War – although clearly a violation of the UN Charter – was not launched to solve a territorial dispute, so let’s look at China’s record on the matter. From Fravel (2010):

    “After all, China’s past behavior in its recent territorial disputes suggests that future territorial expansion may be unlikely.
    Although China has participated in more territorial disputes than any other state since the end of World War II (23), it has settled the majority of these conflicts through bilateral agreements, usually by compromising over the sovereignty of
    contested land. China has used force in some of these disputes, but it has generally not seized or conquered large amounts of land that it did not control before the outbreak of hostilities” (google for cite, he’s a great source of information and reason on this issue).

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  10. @Enoch – We do have a rather more immediate examples of previous dispute resolution in the South China Sea – the 1974 attack on the Vietnamese in the Paracels, and the battle in the Spratlies in 1988. The main reason why the 1979 invasion did not include a naval component was the presence of the fleets of the superpowers in the South China Sea, it was also the presence of the US fleet that deterred attacks pre-1974.

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  11. @foarp

    If you read a detailed account of the 1974 and 1988 conflicts (also don’t forget about the 1994 Mischief Reef conflict) (see Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes), it’s impossible not to conclude that the China cannot be singled out to blame for these conflicts. Please also read with care what other claimants (particularly) Vietnam were doing during those periods.

    The evidence simply does not support the thesis that China is an aggressive power eager to use force to settle territorial disputes.

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  12. Glad we apparently agree that China is not violating international law in the South China Sea.

    That’s not what I wrote, Enoch. My post (or above comment) doesn’t suggest that China would be violating international law in the South China Sea – but that doesn’t mean that I’d believe that either claimant is acting entirely legally, either. I haven’t made my mind up about that.

    A few remarks re “democratization of international relations” as I see it: given that there is no such concept in practice, the best smaller countries can hope for is to have a choice between different hegemons, and to balance hegemons against each other. Many Cubans would probably be glad if their regime had such options, and many Vietnamese are probably glad that their regime does have such options. Neither America, nor China (who apparently “invented” it), are great champions of the concept, in my view. As for America, my advice would be that America tries to turn its hegemony in South-East Asia – as far as it exists – into a partnership. Hegemony is costly – it usually comes with favorable trade conditions “granted” by the hegemon, with unilateral defense spending, etc. – something America may not be able to sustain unilaterally, and something that may turn it into a useful idiot, rather than into a lasting power in the region.

    I’m not trying to assess to which degree the invasion of North Korea was a technical necessity, or a try to show Pyongyang what the UN forces were capable of, or a try to permanently occupy North Korea. The wording of resolution 83 seems to have been rather vague in this regard (“recommends that the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area”).

    What looks relevant is that Kim Il-sung had Beijing’s endorsement for the invasion of South Korea. Even if you want to think of the UN resolution as a “figleaf” (I can’t think of any UN resolution that was brought about by means and procedures my mother would approve of), at least there was a figleaf. What North Korea did, with Russian and Chinese backing, was naked aggression.

    The traditional Chinese view of military means was that an army isn’t there to exercise violence, but to repress violence. That’s still true to a degree: to station troops in Sansha was something Beijing was able to do without having to go to war. All-out war in the region is still not too likely, for a number of reasons: that at least two nuclear powers (China and America) may get involved, and war would most probably be disastrous for China’s development / for Beijing’s international relations, for example. But the traditional view of what the military is good or bad for has changed fundamentally, be it with the KMT’s militarism, be it with the CCP’S. To use history “as a mirror to see the future” won’t work here.

    Be it for territorial gains, be it for “teaching lessons” (Deng Xiaoping re Vietnam), be it for an ideology of “national unity” (South Korea, Taiwan), Foarp – correctly, I believe – points out that China is capable of aggression, and the way you cite technicalities to put his points into perspective UN (non-) membership, motivation other than territorial expansion – is just that: technicalities. America hardly plans to annex Syria, for example. This isn’t about territorial expansion either – but it doesn’t make the partly-veiled war on Syria any more acceptable, neither in my, nor in your view, does it?

    As far as this post about regional international relations is concerned – and only that far (to avoid misunderstandings) -, I see no reason to accuse the CCP simply for suspicions people may feel against it, without evidence that can only be found in practice. Neither the international community, nor China’s neighbors, should do that. But I believe that, given the past six-odd decades of experience, an idealized view of China would be wrong, too. When it comes to international relations, China is neither “holier” than America, nor worse than America.

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  13. @justrecently

    As regards the Korean War, I think you’re grossly mischaracterizing it. First, there was no Chinese ‘backing’ prior to the outbreak. Mao had most likely heard about Kim’s desire to reunify Korea in 1949, but had no detailed knowledge of plans for the war until May, 1950. Mao offered to station troops on the China-North Korea border, but Kim declined. That doesn’t sound like very serious backing! Stalin had hardly been pushing for war, advocating restraint on Kim’s part, worried that the US would get dragged in.

    Also, remember South Korea was at the time run by a corrupt, despotic government comprised largely of former colonial collaborators and propped up by an occupying army. This was a civil war. The North struck first, but the South was itself readying to invade the north, and Dulles himself advocated attacking the North just a week before the North invaded. All of this complicates the simplistic narrative you’re presented. Have you read Cumings’ work this? I highly recommend it.

    Um, I never denied that China has used force in disputes, and indeed aggression in the case of the war with Vietnam. I don’t hold an idealized view of China. All states suck, no bones about it. But they’re different, and some are indeed worse than others. My disagreement with you was with your equating China and the US, as you do again in your final paragraph. I find it’s easy to convincingly argue that China is better than the US in its international relations. I mean, It’s a very low bar to exceed. This may change one day in the future. Perhaps we can discuss this when we notice China talking about its ‘national’ interests in free commerce in the Caribbean, or when China serves as a strategic balancer for Mexico or Canada in a dispute with the US. But it will take China some decades to develop the military and diplomatic machinery to shape the world in its own interests the way the US has since the end of WWII.

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  14. Enoch, you write that you find Foarp‘s para about China vs. the UN “over the top” – what you write above still doesn’t make it appear over the top to me.

    First of all, I’m not questioning that Kim Il-sung’s war depended on Moscow, rather than on Beijing, and that Mao wasn’t involved in detail, when it came to the preparations. However, He had more than one month to oppose the plan. He did not. He accepted Moscow’s last word (even if, formally, the issue was to be decided finally by the Chinese and Korean comrades together) and hegemony – Soviet hegemony – in that case.

    I haven’t read Bruce Cuming’s book on the Korean war, and therefore don’t know if this NYT review reflects his views correctly, but if it does, I think this paragraph is important:

    Mr. Cumings argues that the Korean War was a civil war with long, tangled historical roots, one in which America had little business meddling.

    Your comment seems to point into a similar direction:

    Also, remember South Korea was at the time run by a corrupt, despotic government comprised largely of former colonial collaborators and propped up by an occupying army. This was a civil war.

    Maybe I’m taking the principles of sovereignty in international relations too serious – maybe. But it surprises me that this point of yours should serve as exonerative when it comes to aggression against South Korea, and not when it comes to aggression against Syria. By these standards, I could argue that Saudi-Arabia is only waging “civil war”, and Russia, for example, has little business meddling in it. I’m not suggesting that – see my earlier comments. But I’m getting the impression that in your view, this should play a role.

    Basically, your line seems to be that we can only assess China’s global role, once (or if) it reaches both the weight and reach the U.S. currently has, and makes use of it in similar ways – below the war threshold, however (see my previous comment). That’s where the present tense – or future – and the past become uncomparable anyway. Any conceivable standoff in the future will involve at least two, if not more, nuclear powers. But to assess the preparedness for aggression is a rule of three, rather than absolute numbers. We don’t need to wait for China taking America’s current position as a hyperpower to judge its attitude towards smaller countries. As Yang Jiechi said in Hanoi, in July 2010: China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.

    So far, this concept only applies in China’s neighborhood. But that’s a matter of hard power, not of principle.

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  15. Got to agree with Enoch’s characterisation of the Korean war paras 1 @ 2.
    Don’t press me, since it is a long drive to the library for real paper references.
    Having read Cummings and a few others beside.
    North and South were equally ghastly and vicious towards the civilian population.

    And yes, I’ve spent two years in Korea and discussed this topic with older Korean friends.

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  16. @justrecently

    Yes I think the Korean War was initially a civil war. The North invaded to reimpose national unity, and the south was poised to do the same. Because it was a civil war, questions of sovereignty do not figure into the calculus for the North or South. As someone said, ‘where equal rights preside, forced decides.’ Partly because the South’s government was widely despised – it was staffed with many corrupt, venal, collaborating officials (not the case in the North btw) – and partly because the North had a real army that had just fought against the Japanese and the KMT forces, without foreign intervention, it was no contest. And China initially had no intention of interfering, since this was just a replay of the Chinese Civil War to the them.

    As regards your claim that I believe China’s global role can only be assessed vis-a-vis the US, let me state that I hold no such view. It was yourself, not me, who drew an analogy between the US ‘balancing’ actions in the South China Sea and China’s unwillingness to have a replay of Libya in Syria. I thought my position was crystal clear: I believe this is a false equivalence. This is no way can be construed as support for whatever China (or any other state) does.

    As another example of this non-equivalence, since you mention that both China and the US are nuclear powers, let’s examine their policies towards the use of these most inhumane of weapons. US: is explicit in its willingness to use these weapons in a first strike, even against non-nuclear nations. China: no first use policy.

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  17. The US had little business meddling in a North-South Korean war? That’s a new one on me. Frankly, if a country with which they’d signed an alliance was suffering an invasion from another which it did not, in the end, make necessary through its own actions, then this is not ‘meddling’, this the US following through on their own commitments.

    One can pick-and-choose the facts to suit one’s preference. Against the statements of Dulles, you can place the limitations placed on aid sent to the South Koreans specifically for the purpose of rendering them incapable of launching an invasion of the north – limitations which made the collapse of the South Korean army inevitable when the North invaded.

    Fast-forwarding to 1975, we see an example of a government which the US had also made solemn commitments to which was felled by a cross-border invasion, and the sight is hardly more pleasing. South Vietnam became an entire nation under ‘re-education’, with millions lingering in prison camps or in exile for years, and hundreds of thousands being done to death in an orgy of revenge. The only excuse for the US’s failure to defend its ally was the apparent hopelessness of the country ever being able to stand on its own two feet, and the exhaustion of all will to continue helping it do so – something which very clearly does not apply to South Korea as it is today, although it could arguably apply to North Korea.

    The same arguments might apply to many places. Can one really say that the super-powers had no business ‘meddling’ in Germany because the roots of conflict between communists and anti-communists in Germany went back many years? Do you genuinely think that West Germany’s allies would have had ‘no business’ intervening against an invasion of that country from the east?

    Similarly, the roots of the conflict over Taiwan go back now more than a century. This does not mean that the countries that have made solemn commitments to aid Taiwan’s defence against outside aggression should not do so. Indeed, outside support has made the current way of life and high living standards Taiwanese enjoy possible, and a failure to act would be a betrayal which would set Taiwan’s guarantor’s word at naught.

    The same applies to the South China Sea. The US has entered into agreements to help Vietnam and the Phillipines if they are attacked – but this agreement will not otherwise be activated. Would Vietnam or the Phillipines attack China? Highly unlikely given China’s advantages, but given the history you would be naive to say that China would not attack if its leaders thought they could do so and win at a low cost, particularly if their demands were refused out-right.

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  18. … and the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union to pre-empt a Soviet attack, sure.
    In earnest: suggestions that the USA planned a ground-troop attack on North Korea is as threadbare as the reputed Wehrmacht “pre-emptive” attack in 1941.

    Even when people try to convince others, terminuses should be used appropriately. The military conflict between North- and South Korea does not correspond to the definition of a civil war. A war between West Germany and East Germany, at the times of the Hallstein doctrine, wouldn’t have been a civil war either.

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  19. @tai de

    I never said the US planned an attack. I said “Dulles himself advocated attacking the North just a week before the North invaded.” But my weaker claim turns out to be untrue:

    Just one week before the invasion John
    Foster Dulles visited Seoul and the 38th par-
    allel. By then he was a roving ambassador
    and, as the odds-on Republican choice for
    secretary of state, a symbol of Harry Tru-
    man’s attempt at bipartisanship after Repub-
    licans opened up on him with the “who lost
    China?” campaign. In meetings with
    Syngman Rhee the latter not only pushed for
    a direct American defense of the ROK, but
    advocated an attack on the North. One of
    Dulles’s favorite reporters, William
    Mathews, was there and wrote just after
    Dulles’s meeting that Rhee was “militantly
    for the unification of Korea. Openly says it
    must be brought about soon … Rhee pleads
    justice of going into North country. Thinks it
    could succeed in a few days … if he can do it
    with our help, he will do it.” Mathews noted
    that Rhee said he would attack even if “it
    brought on a general war.” All this is yet
    more proof of Rhee’s provocative behavior,
    but it is no different from his threats to
    march north made many times before. The
    Dulles visit was merely vintage Rhee: there is
    no evidence that Dulles was in collusion with
    him.

    From: Cumings, Bruce. (2010) The Korean War: a history. Modern Library.

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  20. @tai de

    For an argument to view the conflict as a civil war, here’s Cumings:

    For Americans a discrete encapsulation
    limits this war to the time frame of June
    1950 to July 1953. This construction releg-
    ates all that went before to mere prehistory,
    June 25 is original sin, all that comes after is
    postbellum. It also presumes to demarcate
    the period of active American involvement;
    before June 1950, it is Syngman Rhee
    against Kim Il Sung backed or controlled by
    Stalin and/or Mao; after July 1953, it is Rhee
    against the same people, his fledgling repub-
    lic ever under threat. This construction fo-
    cuses the bright glare of our attention on the
    question of who started the war, on the
    presupposition that the correct answer to
    this question furnishes answers to all the
    other questions. What is highlighted here ob-
    scures all that went before and all that came
    after, placing it in the shadows of irrelev-
    ance. In this manner a wrongly conceived
    and never-known civil conflict disappears
    before our very eyes, as an American con-
    struction that only an American would be-
    lieve; but American amour propre remains
    firmly intact. The American focus on “who
    started it” is a political and often an ideolo-
    gical position, a point of honor that abstracts
    from and makes easy and comprehensible
    the politically shaped verdicts that began
    with Washington’s official story on June 25,
    1950.
    The Korean War was (and is) a civil war;
    only this conception can account for the
    100,000 lives lost in the South before June
    1950 and the continuity of the conflict down
    to the present, in spite of assumptions that
    Moscow’s puppets in Pyongyang would
    surely collapse after the USSR itself met obli-
    vion in 1991.

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  21. @foarp

    You continually analogize to other conflicts, now (along with Tai De) bringing in divided Germany and Vietnam into the mix. This is exhausting, especially since I’ve only downed one cup of coffee so far, so I’ll limit my reply to Korea, since adding other countries into the mix changes nothing of the principles we are discussing.

    On Korea, yes, my normative position is that the US should not have supported the Rhee regime, especially after witnessing what it did to the Korean populace when the US, as occupying force, had excellent knowledge of what it was up to. kingtubby1 argued that they were about the same (pre-war), but I defy you to find evidence supporting this. Simply put: I don’t think the US should give support to brutal, authoritarian regimes. You seem to suggest that there is a higher principle: ‘commitments’ and alliances that the state makes. So we disagree.

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  22. Analysis, interpretation, analogization/application are the the historian’s steps. (This thread started with interpretation, however.) To start with a judgmental narratif, or to excuse an aggression, is on a Reader’s Digest level.

    So, Enoch, what do you actually want to tell me, foarp, or justrecently? If history is there to relativise a breach of law, why should Saudi Arabia not take care of a territory (Syria) and Arab brothers who they liberated from the Ottoman yoke before, too, during WW1? And what can be wrong with analogization, when a comparison between America and China is debated in any event?

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  23. @tai de

    Don’t have a problem with analogies, just find it tiring when people bring up an analogy or a case off the cuff, are then shown that the analogy/case does not support their argument, and in response they bring up other equally implausible analogies/cases. I think it’s arguing in bad faith. I’m respectful, bring in evidence to make my case, admit when I’m wrong, but am now getting accused of excusing aggression and using history to ‘relativise breaches of law’. Oh well.

    I’ve made the arguments I want to make by making them. For instance, I’ve given some evidence for why the Korean conflict should be understood as a civil war, challenging your unsupported statement that, “The military conflict between North- and South Korea does not correspond to the definition of a civil war.” Perhaps you’re right. But before we go onto the Ottoman Empire, maybe you can rebutt your claim that I’ve challenged.

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  24. I fail to see how I’ve been proved ‘wrong’. My statement was that China had made war on the UN when it was in their interest. Your response was that the UN was a mere fig-leaf, but this, even if true, does not prove me wrong, in fact it recognises the literal truth of what I said – the PRC did make war on UN forces in Korea. You have therefore not made a statement that requires rebutting to sustain the initial point.

    The only thing that your statement requires is the acknowledgement that the UN, because of the USSR’s abstention and the PRC’s exclusion, did not consult either the USSR or the PRC when the decision to assist South Korea was made. That I concede this hardly changes anything.

    The illegality of the PRC’s position in the Korean war, whilst no doubt dismissed as merely technical, was tacitly conceded by the PRC itself when it decided to make war on the UN under an even more palpable fig-leaf – that the PLA soldiers involved in the war did not represent the PLA or the PRC, but were volunteers fighting for North Korea motivated by revolutionary enthusiasm. You may say that the UN authorised only the driving of the North Koreans north of the 38th parallel – this is debatable. What is not debatable is that in 1950, in 1951, and again in 1952, the ‘volunteers’ spearheaded offensives to the south of the 38th parallel with the avowed goal of conquering the peninsula.

    By the time 1950 arrived two states had been formed in the Korean peninsula. No Korean state (other than the government in exile which went on to form the ROK) existed in the years before partition of this colony. How is a civil war capable when no state existed to be divided by the war? How is an internal conflict possible when no ‘interior’ existed, when international boundaries had to be crossed for the war to be fought? Finally, why is it that the narrative of the Korean war as a civil war only a recent invention, one reached only after a previous narrative – that actually South Korea was the aggressor – was dropped?

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  25. @ Enoch:

    US: is explicit in its willingness to use these weapons in a first strike, even against non-nuclear nations. China: no first use policy.

    Sooner or later, an escalating conflict leads to the use of nuclear weapons – possibly tactical ones first, but intercontinentals in the end.

    In the current situation, a “no-first-use” statement would actually be easy to maintain: the South China Sea hardly warrants first-use anyway. Besides, if Beijing’s policy meant that much, they should have fired Zhu Chenghu, in 2005. Not least to send a unmistakable political signal to the top brass of the PLA.

    A statement of a policy is one thing. Practice is another. Here’s another way of climbing down from lofty promises (peaceful space policies).

    When it comes to the crunch, and when nobody stops the process, peacetime promises won’t define the deliberations on the side in trouble.

    As for Tai De‘s ideas about the definition of civil war, they may or may not differ from mine, but a civil war – as far as I can see – requires a common (previous, in Korea’s case) society that generated the differences which would then lead to civil war, or a war between interest groups within one country. What kept Korea apart, however, was the partition of the country into two different spheres of influence first, and two different states soon after – all before 1950. The people had no reason to go to war against each other – just as Germans east and west of the Elbe had no reason to go to war against each other. Only the two systems that had created the two states – the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic – were antagonistic in the beginning. The foreign powers behind them, that is. The people? What for? Didn’t they need governments, media and educators who equipped them with “reasons”? And weren’t those state-controlled media?

    Prior to the liberation from the Japanese, there had been no Korean public that would have deserved that name, and within which reasons for civil war could have been generated.

    But the heart of the matter is this: South Korea was an internationally recognized state.

    If you consider the Korean War a “civil war” all the same, for Korea being one country or civilization, the former Ottoman empire comes into place – both Turkey (for its former role as the empire’s center) and Saudi Arabia (for Hussein bin Ali and his family hailing from there) would be playing their roles in accordance with the “rules” of civil war.

    I don’t believe that a debate about who is, or isn’t, making his points in good or bad faith can lead anywhere. When I feel that I’m being understood myself in a discussion, I’ll first try to clarify, and if that doesn’t work, take heart from the thought that maybe, I’ll see the point of another debator more clearly later – or that there may not be such a point to understand anyway.

    “Off the cuff” means spontaneously, doesn’t it? What’s wrong with that? And which analogies are implausible for which reason?

    You wrote that [t]he North invaded to reimpose national unity. As simple as that? No ideological motivation? Kim Il-sung was a communist, not just a nationalist, right?

    Suggestion: so far, you seem to recommend that people here should read Cuming’s book, or his works in general. That may be asking a bit too much. I think it could help this online debate/thread if you make a statement about what brings Cumings to the conclusion that the Korean War was a civil war, not a war between two different ideologies, and – if you see that nature of the Korean War as crucial to this discussion – a statement on how it is relevant in its context.

    And if you have questions to me that you think may lead to helpful answers, don’t hesitate to ask.

    @Tai De:

    Your recommended way may be the right approach to history. However, my post was more about the present tense, and so was the beginning of the thread. Therefore, I’ll content myself with any direction this thread may take, to history or otherwise. Interestingly, however, both Enoch and you seem to demand a certain structure in the row of comments, or a certain nature of comments.

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  26. RE: No first use – can you genuinely point to a situation where the US would likely use nuclear weapons but the PRC wouldn’t? I can’t think of one. It would be idle to think that the PRC wouldn’t use nuclear weapons against a successful invasion, or in retaliation against the large-scale use of biological or chemical weapons, or similar circumstances. Indeed, comments from senior Chinese officials indicate that they would consider retaliating with nuclear weapons if, e.g., guided bombs were used against them.

    The real test here is: if the US made a similar understaking, how likely is it that you would take it seriously?

    The main difference between China and the US is not on the publicly declared terms of use, since these would be quickly re-written if a circumstance demanding use of nuclear weapons but not foreseen arose. The difference instead is in the size of the arsenal. China, like the UK and France, maintains a minimal deterrent, one sufficent to devastate any likely aggressor or combination of aggressors. This is in contrast to Russia and the US, who maintain arsenals far in excess of what is necessary, mostly out of unreasonable fear of the other.

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  27. @foarp

    Of course I don’t disagree that China fought against putative UN forces in Korea. I object to the characterization of this as ‘making war’ given the events. First, China’s entry was in reaction to US involvement under the auspices of the UN, in particular the push north of the 38th parallel all the way to the Yalu River, a decision that was made in Washington. The record on this is important, and quite solid, and it shows that the US had decided to reunify Korea as early as mid-July, 1950. Also see NSC-81 which explicitly calls for a ‘roll-back’ of the North Korean regime. The UN had exceeded its mandate, and the US was using its command of putative UN forces to realize its own goals of communist ‘roll back’ and reunification of Korea on its terms, not to bring about the status quo ante, peace or security as was called for in UN Resolution 84. In addition, for China the UN had no authority since it had been excluded from the body. How can you exclude someone and then demand they play by the rules? And last, the UN was in fact just a fig leaf for US actions. An official US Joint Chiefs of Staff report recounts: “Having resolved upon armed intervention for itself, the U.S. Government the next day sought the approval and the assistance of the United Nations.”

    Your argument that two states existed at the outbreak of the hostilities is way off. I mean, come on, Korea had no state before it was colonized? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseon Also, the UN itself had a Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitarion of Korea (UNCURK). The UN is in the business of reunifying separate nations? Come on. The North and South BOTH wanted to reunify Korea, but on their own terms. The two state argument is baseless.

    I also don’t disagree that the goal of China’s forces, after they entered the conflict, was to assist the North to kick the UN out of the Korean peninsula and reunify Korea under the North. For them, the analogy was kicking the KMT out of China.

    Speaking of legality, you might want to inquire how the US prosecuted the war. An utter disgrace. Note the document below includes nothing about the legality of shooting civilians, just complains that the Army should be doing its own dirty work, and we’ve got better things to do.

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  28. @Enoch – How can the UN exceed a mandate they gave themselves and which was not phrased in such a way that it was exceeded merely by crossing the 38th parallel? Had North Korea agreed to a cease-fire at any point before the Panmunjon talks – if not, can it really be said that the UN was exceeding their remit of restoring peace to the peninsula by crossing the 38th parallel? How could the US have approached the UN for authorisation for action if it had not already decided it was necessary to take action?

    How can a civil war happen in a state that had ceased to exist 40 years previously? As for the UN being in the business of unification – unifications have happened under UN auspices, Somalia at independence being an example, but you should ask why it is necessary for the UN to be involved in the unification of the states if they were already unified? Could it be that it was because no unitary state existed at that date? If no unitary state existed at that date, how was a civil war possible?

    You must know that the ‘civil war’ justification is a post-war creation.During the war the PRC government justified their intervention as deterring aggression, that it had been South Korea that had attacked North Korea. The clear implication here being that had South Korea driven Northern forces to the Yalu by themselves, the PRC would have intervened anyway – or are you saying that you think they wouldn’t have? And if intervention in a civil war is justifiable if another party intervenes on the other side, then where does that leave objections to intervention in Syria?

    “Making war” is an English phrase that just means fighting war – nothing more, nothing less.

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  29. @foarp How can the UN exceed a mandate they gave themselves and which was not phrased in such a way that it was exceeded merely by crossing the 38th parallel?

    1. The US was going to intervene in the conflict whether the UN passed a resolution or not.
    2. The goal of the US – as early as July, 1950 – was to ‘roll back’ the North Korean forces and reunify Korea under the Rhee regime.
    3. The US, acting as commander of the UN forces, acted on this goal – and not the UN mandate – assisting the South Korean forces to drive north to near the border with China.

    Regarding your ‘two-state’ argument, it’s hard to take seriously. Here’s a straightforward definition of civil war:

    “A civil war is a war between organized groups within the same nation state or republic, or, less commonly, between two countries created from a formerly united nation state.” (wikipedia)

    Hmmm. Seems to fit.

    Furthermore, your tenacity in arguing the two-state theory undermines your argument that the UN mandate could have authorized the (from your point of view) annexation of North Korea by South Korea, which was the goal of both the South Korean forces and the US-led UN forces (can’t say reunification according to your argument). That violates the very core of the UN charter.

    @foarp but you should ask why it is necessary for the UN to be involved in the unification of the states if they were already unified?

    Did you type this in with a straight face? I never said Korea was unified. Both sides to the conflict viewed Korea as one country, both sides wanted unification. The imagined community of a Korean nation is so deeply embedded that even to this day – after 60+ years of two separate de facto states with completely different ideologies – the majority of the Korean people want reunification. see http://asaninst.org/upload_eng/board_files/file1_506.pdf

    @foarp You must know that the ‘civil war’ justification is a post-war creation.

    Doesn’t matter for us how the conflict was talked about at the time.

    @foarp During the war the PRC government justified their intervention as deterring aggression, that it had been South Korea that had attacked North Korea.

    So what? It’s clearly wrong. Doesn’t change anything, because no arguments ride on China’s explanation of its entry into the conflict. We have the historical record, don’t need to rely on misrepresentations by states.

    @foarp The clear implication here being that had South Korea driven Northern forces to the Yalu by themselves, the PRC would have intervened anyway – or are you saying that you think they wouldn’t have?

    It’s hard to argue what China ‘would have done.’ I have a better idea, let’s look at the record. Mao knew that the North was likely going to attack the South sometime in 1950. Did China make any preparations for war, raise a volunteer army, anything? Nope. For China (until the US intervened), this was a Korean affair, not requiring their involvement.

    @foarp “Making war” is an English phrase that just means fighting war – nothing more, nothing less.

    Fine, then you don’t object to my characterization of the conflict as the UN making war on China, right?

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  30. Enoch, I think both Foarp and I listed a number of reasons as to why we don’t think of the Korean War as a civil war. I’d like to repeat my suggestion of yesterday:

    so far, you seem to recommend that people here should read Cuming’s book, or his works in general. That may be asking a bit too much. I think it could help this online debate/thread if you make a statement about what brings Cumings to the conclusion that the Korean War was a civil war, not a war between two different ideologies, and – if you see that nature of the Korean War as crucial to this discussion – a statement on how it is relevant in its context.


    As far as your pattern of argument is concerned, Foarp, how can the identification of North Korea’s attack on the South (and the involvement of the Soviet Union and China in the preparations) be reconciled with a notion that arms supplies to Syrian rebels are no aggression? We seem to agree that the earlier case was one of aggression, but we seem to disagree about the latter (current) case.

    This is a free commenting thread, and feel free to go ahead as it seems fit to you, but I’m only following the debate loosely now (and it seems to me that nobody else is following it at all).

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  31. @justrecently

    Evidence that Korean war can be seen as a civil war include:

    1. Korea has an exceptionally long history as a unified state.
    2. Its annexation by Japan in 1910 was viewed by the vast majority of Koreas as, to put it mildly, illegitimate. Also wasn’t recognized by *any* of the parties to the post-WWII conflict. (although Theodore Roosevelt was an ardent supporter of Korea for the Japanese at the time)
    3. The division into the North and South at the end of WWII was not caused by any particular division within Korea (ethnic, linguistic differences, etc.) but the happenstance of how WWII concluded on the peninsula.
    4. As a result, the Korean nationalism shared by the North and South pushed for unification.
    5. The UN had a committee to ‘reunify’ Korea.

    I don’t agree that the fact that two sides of a civil war have two different ideologies prevents us from understanding a conflict as a civil war.

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  32. @JR – I believe that supplying of one side against another for the purposes of aggression is, naturally enough, sharing in that aggression.

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  33. Thanks for your replies.

    Enoch, I seem to understand that the points above are also the ones Cumings makes. Correct?

    The idea that past statehood that lasted particularly long – which point in history marks the beginning of that period? – should be an argument as to why an attack on a recognized sovereign state of today should count as a civil war, in my view, removes the foundatons on which international relations are legally based today.

    The Ottoman Empire is said to be one of the longest-lasting empires in history. Wouldn’t that justify Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the current Syrian civil war? Why should empires be no basis for such an argument, while nationalism would be? To me, this looks like putting personal values, rather than internationally valid concepts, first, and it would look like a pretty dangerous concept for the legitimacy (or even legality) of countries like China or Russia.

    When it comes to nationalism, the question if there is a (divided) nation will depend on how people feel about it. Ask an Arab if he feels that there is one Arab nation, and you will get a “Yes” as safely as if you ask a Korean if there is one Korean nation. Should I consider an Arab’s answer less valid than a Korean’s? They have a traditional public (in terms of literature, sciences, and language) in common, just as the Koreans, haven’t thy? And should I, therefore, consider most of the Arab League’s involvement in Syria’s troubles a natural push for unification?

    I don’t know how James Fearon – the author to who the Wikipedia article you apparently quoted from – weighs the length of histories, but what I can tell from the article’s list of sources is that his definition is quite young (2007), a premium-content Foreign Affairs article on Iraq. The Geneva Conventions, also as suggested in the same article, do not specify the term “civil war”. There seem to be relatively new definitions under development, and they should be applied rather carefully, in my view, in the judgment of the legal or moral nature of a war.

    I don’t agree that the fact that two sides of a civil war have two different ideologies prevents us from understanding a conflict as a civil war.

    Nor would I agree that this would prevent us from doing so. In fact, I believe it is a driving factor in the “Arab civil war”, too. I brought Kim’s ideology in as a reaction to your description of [t]he North invaded to reimpose national unity. That matters, because it defined the alliance behind him.

    I might find your position easier to understand – even if I’d consider that rather reckless – if you think of Saudi-Arabia as a civil-war party in Syria, too, but up to now, that’s not the impression I get from this discussion.

    In certain ways, I believe that the discussion between you, Enoch, and you, Foarp, has the potential to go on and on because both of you seem to believe that the few rules that have gotten some weight in defining international relations after all (and which are relatively widely agreed conclusions from long, bloody experience) should deserve more weight in “this”, and less weight in “that” case.

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  34. @justrecently

    I think all the points I mentioned in my last comment are from Cumings, yes.

    @justrecently The Ottoman Empire is said to be one of the longest-lasting empires in history. Wouldn’t that justify Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the current Syrian civil war? Why should empires be no basis for such an argument, while nationalism would be?

    The UN of course holds that self-determination is the bedrock principle of how nations should be defined. Popular nationalism, as an expression of the will of the people, matters, while the historical record of belonging to this or that empire, counts for naught.

    There is no doubt that all participants (internal and external) in the Korean conflict viewed Korea as one nation. In contrast, there is no doubt that Turkey is not intervening for revanchist reasons. There is likewise no doubt that Saudi Arabia respects the sovereignty of the Syrian nation. No one contends that ANY of the participants in the struggle within Syria are fighting to reunify anything but the Syrian nation.

    In more detail, the case of divided Korea cannot be analogized to states that eventually emerged from the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. The main reason is that it was the Ottoman EMPIRE, while Korea has been (what we would now call) a nation-state for an exceedingly long time. For centuries, Korea had one language, and mainly because of its size, was ruled fairly directly by a centralized bureaucracy. As a result, the nationalism that emerged in Korea was precisely that: Korean nationalism, while the nationalisms that emerged in countries that formed after the demise of the polyglot Ottoman empire were often based on the provinces used by that empire to rule its empire, an empire so large that direct rule was impossible according to the technological abilities of the day. And this leaves out the role of European colonialism and divide-and-rule tactics in fostering or suppressing nationalisms, setting national boundaries, etc. You then mention the concept of ‘one Arab nation’, which is quite distinct from the Ottoman Empire. In any case, Arab nationalism has always had to contend with nationalisms proper, and has always lost the competition. Arab nationalism is at the present time dead, but as I showed in a previous comment, the majority of the Korean people still want to realize unification. Further, there is no one talking about the struggle in Syria as a civil war except as a struggle between the government and the rebels. The participants in the struggle do not see the conflict in those terms. The UN does not have an ‘Arab Reunification Committee.’ In short, your analogy is a mess.

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  35. Enoch, if someone’s analogy is a mess is something outsiders can probably judge much more impartially than people involved. Same with your earlier allegation that participants other than you weren’t discussing here “in good faith”. Let’s try to keep the discussion rather dispassionate.

    To put nationalism’s weight above an empire’s is a discretionary choice. Can’t see how the rules that govern state-to-state relations would prefer nationalism over empires here. In fact, I have stated two, rather than only one, “legitimizing” factors for Turkey and Saudi Arabia: revanchism (which certainly does play a role in Turkey), and nationalism.

    It’s true: there is no “Arab-reunification Committee” at the UN. But that doesn’t mean a great deal. In fact, given that the UN only recognized South Korea’s claim to governing all of Korea, it rather “legalized” the invasion of North Korea, than the other way round – mind the quotation marks.

    Further, there is no one talking about the struggle in Syria as a civil war except as a struggle between the government and the rebels.

    It is certainly true that the Syrian government does not think of the Saudis, of al Quaeda, or any other stakeholders as participants in that war – not now, that is, because it isn’t in their interest of survival. But Arab nationalism is an undisputed fact of life on the peninsula. Syria – at different times – tried to establish an Arab (con)federation with Egypt. That Arab nationalism, under the influence of post world war one and post world war two outside powers, didn’t turn into some kind of statehood doesn’t negate its existence. The desire is there – just with different ideological prefixes, and therefore pretty much like Korea’s.

    Your claim that there is no one talking about the struggle in Syria as a civil war except as a struggle between the government and the rebels doesn’t hold water. Just google “arab civil war” as a searchword combination, and you will get a (nominal) result of 133,000 – referring to history and to current affairs. The “Arab Spring” hasn’t reached beyond the Arab world, into Iran, for example – not because the political systems would be all that different, but because there is a common Arab public.

    To avoid misunderstandings: I’m still not thinking of the Korean War or the Syrian war as civil wars – but given not least the Wikipedia definition you linked to earlier, I can’t see where you are actually drawing the line between a civil war, and a war about something else.

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  36. @justrecently

    As I said in my last comment, self-determination is the principle of what (should) counts as a nation-state, according to the UN. Hence popular nationalism matters, while whether an area was in the past incorporated into an empire bears no weight. It’s not a discretionary choice as you say, it directly bears on UN principles.

    Your argument has been to deny that the Korean conflict was a civil war, and accomplish this by drawing an analogy to the Syrian conflict, arguing the absurdity of viewing that conflict as an Arab or Ottoman civil war (of course I agree), and thus by extension claim that it is improper to view the Korean conflict as a civil war. This in itself is a weak line of argumentation, since you rely on a separate case to argue your point about the original case, but more devastatingly for your argument, the analogy is fundamentally flawed for the reasons I will repeat below:

    1. According to the UN, the principle regarding what political entities should be regarded as nations is self-determination.

    2. Arab nationalism and popular support for some type of Arab policy, while it does exist, is extremely weak, has been on the wane for more than 40 years, and can’t mount a credible challenge to the other nationalisms in the region.

    3. Korean nationalism and popular support for reunification (note the language, this is how it has been understood since after WWII) has been very high since the end of WWII among all parties, despite the defacto separation of Korea into two states.

    4. The logical conclusion (according to UN principles) is that Korea should be one country, and there should be no changes in the Arab world. Look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_reunification There is simply nothing remotely comparable to reunification efforts in the Arab world to realize a pan-Arab polity.

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  37. Enoch: you suggest that people “bring up” anologies or cases that are “implausible”, that they simply go to another anology which is “tiring” (and arguing “in bad faith”), that peoples’ analogies are “a mess”, a “weak line of argumentation”, and “devastatingly, fundamentally flawed”.

    This amounts to claiming two roles at once: that of a debator, and that of a referee or a “public” that is taking a vote. In my view, this approach only makes it harder for participants in, and readers of this thread, to get the actual issues of the discussion.

    The article you linked to, re self-determination, points out why the concept can’t rule state-to-state relations:

    According to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the UN, ICJ and international law experts, there is no contradiction between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity, with the latter taking precedence.

    Yes, Stan can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but [..] he can have the right to have babies.

    This can govern relations within states, Enoch, provided that a government is prepared to consider compromises on territorial integrity (and in that case, Stan can actually have babies), but it can’t govern state-to-state relations.

    I don’t think that either America or China could stop Koreans from approaching a common state these days, if the Koreans themselves were determined to make it happen. In that light, Korean nationalism is about as “weak” as Arab nationalism – they aren’t making it happen. Hence, I can’t agree with point 4. in your previous comment either. There should be one Korean state if both sides want to have one (and can agree on how to achieve that goal), and there should be an Arab state – with as many or as few current states who want to be part of it – when they can agree.

    I pointed out before that Fearon‘s concept of civil war is rather new, and should therefore be carefully applied when passing moral or legal judgment on a war. There’s nothing wrong with such concepts, obviously – it’s part of Fearon’s job to keep working on them. However, Fearon applied his concept on a conflict in the present tense, i. e. Iraq, and the way the U.S. should make decisions in the present tense. He wrote about a war he believes the U.S. is unable to put to an end. That wasn’t the case when it comes to the Korean war.

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  38. @justrecently

    I don’t believe I argued that self-determination should govern state-to-state relations. But since self-determination is for the UN the bedrock principle of what should constitute a nation state, it’s a necessary logical prior issue to ‘state to state relations.’ But since there are no clear guidelines or ‘laws’ regarding this, we can only look at individual cases and try to judge.

    So let’s look this from the standpoint of Korea after WWII. First, the division of Korea in a North and South along the 38th parallel was a unilateral US invention drawn up after the surrender of the Japanese without any input from anyone representing Korea. The US then militarily occupied the south. The Soviets agreed to the division, and occupied the north (pulling out all troops by 1948). The respective regimes of course bore the marks of the different occupying forces, and had radically different visions for what Korea would become. The Korean nation and people, who had suffered under a brutal colonialism imposed by the Japanese since the end of the 19th Century, thus had any chance of self-determination or territorial integrity plucked from them by the US decision to divide the country along a completely arbitrary boundary (viewed, again, by all at this point as one nation-state), and subsequent military occupation and regime support. This was viewed by all Korean participants at the time as an arbitrary and unnatural state of affairs, and the regimes of both the north and south were planning to reunify Korea by force. Hence, a civil war.

    Also, Fearon’s concept of civil war as a “war…between two countries created from a formerly united nation states” is not at all novel. I’m sure you have heard of the ‘American Civil War’, which, since the southern states had formally seceded from the United States before the war, was a two state conflict. Yet the conflict is almost without exception referred to as a civil war.

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  39. All I can see from this debate so far is that the definition of the Korean war as a civil war matters to you, Enochwhy it would matter to you, seems to remain obscure to me. You quoted Cumings a few days ago, but the lines you quoted only explain to me why many Americans may not want to see it as a civil war – I find no explanation in them as to why they should see the Korean War as a civil war.

    I don’t believe I argued that self-determination should govern state-to-state relations.

    That’s right – you didn’t. But I had written that I couldn’t see how the rules that govern state-to-state relations would prefer nationalism over empires in the context with the Korean War, and you replied that it bears on UN principles. What I wrote in my previous comment (Aug 12, 6:39 am) was a response to that previous exchange.

    In the second paragraph of your comment, you describe the north-south boundary as a mainly American fault. Why is that? Because they suggested a boundary, rather than withdrawing from Korea? Why should they have withdrawn?

    I’ve certainly heard of the American Civil War. But that war followed a decision by Americans to leave the union. No Koreans made such a decision. Those decisions were made by outsiders.

    I believe that this is one of several points in this thread where the cat bites its own tail: both Foarp and I have argued that there had been no Korean leaders who could take decisions during the time of Japanese annexation or occuptation. And after the end of the war, there were Korean leaders, but their scope was rather limited. The Korean War was started by an international Communist camp, and the war was brought to an end by outsiders – without either Korean side overwhelming the other.

    In short: none of these comments have convinced me (or Foarp or Tai De, as far as I can see / as long as they commented or read along) that the Korean war should be seen as a civil war – and the continuing length of the debate probably hasn’t either.

    My suggestion: maybe you can explain in one comment as to why the Korean War should be seen as one all the same – drawing on your previous comments if need be (i. e. if you get the impression that I have missed a crucial point of yours), and also why it actually matters to you that the Korean War should be seen as a civil war.

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  40. @justrecently

    I think I’ve made all my points on the question of the Korean War as a civil war. If you think it’s fruitless to continue debating the issue, that’s fine. It’s not all that crucial.

    @In the second paragraph of your comment, you describe the north-south boundary as a mainly American fault. Why is that? Because they suggested a boundary, rather than withdrawing from Korea? Why should they have withdrawn?

    Here’s Cumings on this issue:

    “The United States bears the major responsibility for the division of
    Korea at the 38th parallel in 1945, because it took this decision unilaterally
    in mid-August 1945 without consulting any of its wartime
    allies (and of course no Koreans), and then proceeded to set up a
    full military occupation – something that the State Department had
    been planning for since 1943. The Soviet Union accepted this division
    in 1945 and fashioned a communist regime in the North. However,
    it pulled its troops out in December 1948 and never had the
    long-term interest in North Korea that it had in various satellite regimes
    in Eastern Europe.

    The United States had a much greater stake in Korea than did the
    Soviet Union, because it saw South Korea as the front-line of Japanese
    defence, and because the government of the Republic of Korea
    (ROK) that emerged in 1948 after three years of US military government
    was more a US creation than any post-war government in
    East or Southeast Asia. The United States created this longstanding
    stake in the security of the ROK as a pro-US state in the famous
    ‘‘fifteen weeks’’ in 1947, when the Cold War containment doctrine
    and the Marshall Plan came to fruition.” (22)

    (The whole article is worth reading. From “Creating Korean Insecurity: The US Role” in Reconstituting Korean Security, U.N. University Press, whole book available here: http://en.bookfi.org/book/1158246)

    Also, I must take issue with your comment:

    “The Korean War was started by an international Communist camp”

    There’s no evidence for this that I know of. Please let me know if you find some. This was all Kim. There were no Soviet or Chinese troops in the north when hostilities broke out, Stalin didn’t want the conflict, worried that the Soviets would get dragged into a conflict with the US. Mao warned Kim that the north might have to fight the US, but China took absolutely no actions to get involved until the US got involved.

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  41. Next time when in the university library here in Bremen – which may not be before winter -, I’ll take a look at the chapter you quoted from.

    As for the definitions of civil war, and its significance for Korea, I think we should agree to disagree for now.

    The circumstance you take issue with, re the Communist camp, is described by Shen Shihua (I linked to his book on Wednesday, when addressing the degree to which Mao was involved), and by William Stueck. A few pages prior to the linked page 73, Kim also alledges, according to Stueck’s sources, that Mao had “promised him assistance” much earlier.

    I can believe that no matter how explicit Mao’s promise may or may not have been, there was a sense of internationalist reciprocity, as two divisions of Koreans had previously taken part in Mao’s war against the KMT in Manchuria, according to Stueck (page 72).

    If you use an ME browser, you may have to push the browser’s “back” and then “forward” button before it shows the bookpage in full, from left to right.

    Thanks for the discussion!

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  42. @justrecently

    Thanks for the cites. Based on them, I see that Stalin in the spring of 1950 acquiesced to Kim’s plan to reunify Korea by force (after many previous attempts to convince Stalin by Kim), but told Kim that the Soviets wouldn’t send troops or planes, etc., and Kim would have to turn to Mao for help. But Shen’s book argues that China “neither participated nor was informed in any detail about the war plan and its implementation.” So Kim was given the green light by Stalin, and then told to rely on China, who didn’t even know what was going on. It’s very hard for me to interpret this as evidence for the claim “The Korean War was started by an international Communist camp.”

    I agree that China felt indebted directly to Koreans for their participation in the fight against the Japanese and later the KMT alongside the CCP, and were prepared to make good on this debt. But China’s actions show suggest that in this conflict it operated on a different principle of internationalism (in the link you sent): “In the fight for complete liberation the oppressed people rely first of all on their own struggle and then, and only then, on international assistance.”

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  43. @Enoch – And what level of detail would show collaboration? Normally governments that are not actual allies in a conflict do not inform each other of their plans at all. Governments that are allies may only inform their allies of the general outline of their plans. As an example, the Italians only knew the basic details of Operation Barabarosa, did not have forces stationed in Eastern Europe at the start of the attack, and only deployed forces there later, yet the USSR could very accurately be described as having been attacked by an international fascist camp.

    I am familiar with the concept of conspiracy. Speaking in general terms this makes it an offense for two or more people to agree to something that requires, if the agreement is carried out as intended, the commission of a crime by one of them. Is the Mafia boss who merely gives permission to one of his subordinates to murder another, and takes no other part in the killing, guilty of conspiracy to murder? This is a tidy little question, but suffice it to say that yes, it can be, so long as there is at least an actual agreement rather than mere fore-knowledge.

    Kim would not have invaded South Korea without Stalin giving his permission to do so – this is not implying guilt by inaction. Kim would, arguably, not have invaded South Korea without Mao’s approval, which, if Shen is correct, he received. Even though neither Stalin nor Mao took part in the inital attack, they did help in its commission and, apparently, approved of it being carried out. Was there a conspiracy to attack South Korea in 1950 between the leadership of the USSR, the PRC, and the DPRK? Arguably, yes.

    The question is that this may be a defensible way of interpreting events, but is it the best? Does it lead to new conclusions?

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  44. @foarp

    You might want to take a look at the Shen book, which is available at google books preview. It concludes precisely the opposite of what you claim. See the introduction (sorry don’t have page numbers), “Shen’s book…points out that all the war planning and implementation of the war plan was accomplished secretly between Stalin and Kim Il-sung, that is, between Moscow and Pyongyang. China neither participated nor was informed in any detail about the war plan and its implementation.”

    Also, the Stueck book that justrecently sent to bolster the “international Communist” claim explicitly states that, “Kim not only declined Chinese assistance beyond the return of Korean units that had fought in the Chinese Civil War, he did not inform Mao of the date of his planned attack on the south,” adding that “Kim wanted to carry out the task of unification as much as possible on his own.” (103)

    The two pieces of evidence submitted by justrecently hardly support the case for a conspiracy that involves China, and bolsters my claim that it’s highly misleading to claim that “The Korean War was started by an international Communist camp.”

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  45. No intention to re-join the debate (yet), but thought that this interview with Shen (June 2010) and the way he views the Soviet role in the story – according to the “Global Times” – might interest both of you:
    http://www.globaltimes.cn/opinion/commentary/2010-06/542512.html.

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  46. @Enoch – The book does say that Mao did know of the attack in May 1950, agreed to intervene if the Americans defended South Korea, and agreed to release divisions (along with their weapons) for the attack. Did Mao take part in a conspiracy? It certainly appears so.

    At any rate, I don’t know if whether or not there was a conspiracy between Stalin, Mao, and Kim, is decisive of anything. No doubt a similar decision-making process was undertaken before North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam in force in 1975, but this would not have made an intervention by other powers more or less necessary.

    The debate on whether or not the Korean war was a civil war is also not really decisive of anything, unless you want to legitimise North Korea’s attack on South Korea as actually being a continuation of a conflict rather than the beginning of one, and thus also legitimise the invention of other powers on North Korea’s side. The obvious suspicion is that, rather than this being the most convincing explanation of what happened in June 1950, this is actually just the most convenient explanation now that the Chinese government no longer tries to maintain the fiction that the North was engaged in a counter-attack.

    At any rate, the classic examples of civil war (the English, American, Chinese, Spanish, Russian civil wars) all involved a start-state of a unitary state which was then divided into two or more parts by actors from within the same state. By contrast, the 2008 South Ossetia war involved an attempt to re-unify a country that had previously been divided by civil war and was not called, at least to my knowledge, a civil war.

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  47. @Foarp

    Please don’t impugn my motives, and let’s stick to fact and interpretation.

    1) The author (Stueck) of one the books claimed to support the ‘international Communist camp’ thesis, in a review of Cumings’ book, says: “newly released documents show that Beijing was largely left out of the pre-war planning while Moscow was intimately involved.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/10/AR2010091002925.html

    This fits with all the evidence we’ve seen here, that China was clueless about a possible conflict until May 1950, when it was presented with a fait accompli by Kim and Stalin. China did not object. Of course there is some dispute on this point, since the Shen book justrecently sent has Peng Zhen later adamantly arguing that Mao was opposed to the war.

    2) In addition to not objecting, Mao pledged to support the north militarily if the US sent troops to fight. But China *sent no troops*. The ‘releasing of divisions’ you refer to were themselves troops from Korea, which is why every account I’ve read has referred to this as the ‘return’ of divisions. Hence they cannot be viewed as Chinese support. In sum, China had pledged to stay out of the conflict unless other parties entered, and made good on this pledge. I find it unfathomable this can be construed to be support for that conflict.

    I also fail to see why *who* was involved in the partition of a state matters as to whether a later conflict should be considered a civil war or not. What matters is that all the parties (including the UN) at the time viewed Korea as one nation, and that the (original) parties to the conflict were Korean. The 38th parallel was a complete contrivance that had everything to do with big power politics, nothing to do with Korea. There was no historical basis for the division. As a result, this was ‘brother fighting brother’, until third parties intervened. In other words, a civil war.

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  48. I’m reading along, and I’m astonished: there was no communist camp, claimed Enoch, and when a Chinese professor says that Stalin wanted the war, then Stalin just “acquiesced to Kim’s plan to reunify Korea by force”. Enoch accepts the professor as an authoritative source, but attenuates the source as much as he can.

    That Mao’s pledged to pitch in instead of the Soviet Union and to send Chinese troups – providing the counterinsurance for Kim’s military aggression – makes it “unfathomable” that “this can be construed to be support for that conflict”?

    I’ll quote Enoch:
    “Don’t have a problem with analogies, just find it tiring when people bring up an analogy or a case off the cuff, are then shown that the analogy/case does not support their argument, and in response they bring up other equally implausible analogies/cases. I think it’s arguing in bad faith. I’m respectful, bring in evidence to make my case, admit when I’m wrong, but am now getting accused of excusing aggression and using history to ‘relativise breaches of law’. Oh well.”

    Yes, exactly!

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  49. @Tai De

    I have been objecting to the statement “The Korean War was started by an international Communist camp” and have not denied the existence of a communist camp. My issue is that there is no evidence to support the claim that China was a participant in the planning before hostilities broke out, which is precisely what can be be concluded from the statement. Stalin and Kim discussed the upcoming conflict without consulting Mao, and Mao didn’t even believe Kim when he told him Stalin had agreed to hostilities when Kim met with Mao in Beijing in May, 1950. China didn’t know the war had broken out until significantly after the fact. China provided no troops or arms. Hence I conclude that the statement “The Korean War was started by an international Communist camp” grossly overstates China’s interactions with Kim.

    I think this is a reasonable objection given the facts we know, and the fact that parties that acquiesce to a conflict and pledge conditional future support in conflicts they are not involved in materially in some kind are typically not viewed as having ‘started a war.’ I’ll refrain from mentioning examples to keep our discussion focused.

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  50. Enoch: if I’m getting you right, you take issue with “the Communist camp started the war”. I can see that the term could be problematic if Kim, Mao, and Stalin were alive and – in a very different world – stood trial. Just to find out how much common perception may be there, would you agree with this line:

    Stalin wanted the war, Kim started it, and Mao enabled it – all prior to the attack on South Korea?

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