The way China acts with regard to the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula could represent a key turning point in the evolution of the international world order. It could be as symbolic as the United States taking over the role of the British Empire in the Greek Civil War in 1947. To many that represented the peaceful transfer of global hegemonic power from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana.
China is currently an aspiring hegemonic power though currently fails to realise its potential primarily because it focuses on deploying only its hard power in the form of territorial aggrandisement. Such an approach causes the countries it wants to lead to be nervous of its power. China could learn much by studying the rise of the United States in the twentieth century. Chinese foreign policy would be better served by deploying its massive cultural potential and historic leadership role in the region that goes back to ancient times.
China may currently be nervous of a united Korea but it shouldn’t be. Its unease probably arises from the assumption that a united Korea would be an America client. However, by doing so China is underestimating its geostrategic potential. In many regards China has been presented with a huge opportunity.
If China unilaterally decided to liberate North Korea and announced its intention to facilitate the creation of a free and united Korea at the outset it would gain immense international prestige that would dwarf anything that it has previously achieved in the modern era. As a result, its cultural influence would expand exponentially. Such action could even permanently dislodge the United States from its position of preeminance in South Korea and the wider region.
China appears to be in favour of a rule based international economic order. If it started to adopt a similar approach to international politics and focused on being a bulwark of international law and using its soft rather than its hard power then China would be closer to its ultimate aim of providing regional and even global leadership.
However, the Chinese liberation of North Korea would have to be accompanied by a major shift in Chinese geopolitical doctrine for its effects to be decisive. At the moment, China is in dispute with many of its neighbours in the South China Sea where it has displayed unreasonable territorial ambitions. It should commit itself to an amicable resolution of that dispute.
If China behaved honourably in Korea and followed this up with a solution to the South China Sea dispute it would begin to realise its desire to be a real leader in global affairs. This could even be the first step in the restoration of China as the Middle Kingdom in fact rather than just name.