The prospect of Chinese military action on the divided Korean Peninsula is likely to rise as Beijing expands its armed forces, a former longtime U.S. intelligence official in the region warned Tuesday.
“The likelihood of a intervention or interference by the People’s Republic of China in a Korean crisis is going to increase as PRC military capabilities grow, and as the rivalry between the PRC and the U.S. — the strategic rivalry — heightens,” said Markus Garlauskas, who has held a variety of high-level U.S. government intelligence positions over the past two decades.
Potentially more disturbing, according to Mr. Garlauskas, is that the current U.S.-South Korea alliance is currently “not politically or militarily aligned and postured to focus on deterring or defeating [China]. It’s focused on, very explicitly, North Korea.”
The “problem,” he said this week during an appearance on the The Washington Brief, a virtual, monthly event series hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, is that neither Washington nor Seoul appears to have an appetite for adjusting their joint Pyongyang-focused deterrence strategy.
“Both partners, understandably, seem reluctant to pay the political costs and incur their reactions from Beijing that it would take to realign to confront this growing challenge more directly,” said Mr. Garlauskas, who served as national intelligence officer for North Korea from 2014 to 2020 and now heads an Indo-Pacific security initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“This is a concern,” he said, “because [it] could encourage North Korea to acts of adventurism, thinking that China looming in the background will restrain and complicate the responses by the [U.S.-South Korea] alliance.”
U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for months that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime is preparing to test a new nuclear weapon — the North’s seventh such test since 2006, a move that could dangerously shift the region’s already tense security dynamics.
It also comes as Washington and Seoul scramble to respond to expanding North Korean provocations following the collapse of diplomatic talks over the North’s nuclear program, built over recent decades in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Pyongyang warned last week that it will counter any new U.S. military moves on the Korean Peninsula with “overwhelming nuclear force,” asserting that the recent expansion of U.S.-South Korean defense exercises — suspended for a time as the Trump administration sought a denuclearization deal — has pushed tensions to an “extreme red line.”
The warning came after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on a visit to Seoul that Washington will expand advanced military assets on the peninsula, including fighter jets and aircraft carriers, as it increases joint drills with the South.
Uncertainty swirls, meanwhile, over growing bilateral tensions between U.S. and China — North Korea’s neighbor and primary ally — following the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon above the U.S. homeland.
Mr. Garlauskas argued that the U.S. military needs to do more to ready itself for the prospect of waging war with North Korea and China simultaneously. Should a conflict be initiated by either Pyongyang or Beijing, the “potential for [the fighting] to expand to simultaneous conflict with both is going to impose potentially some severe operational and strategic challenges,” Mr. Garlauskas said.
Such a scenario could, for instance, develop if a Chinese military move against Taiwan led to clashes in South Korea, where the U.S. has a major base and thousands of troops.
“A conflict in, say, the Taiwan Strait between the U.S. and a coalition of the willing and China could very easily escalate to the Korean Peninsula, as China looks at all of the U.S. bases and capabilities in the region,” Mr. Garlauskas said.
“Even if China doesn’t initially focus on U.S. Forces Korea or U.S. bases in Korea, that conflict could very naturally geographically expand,” Mr. Garlauskas added. “It’s important to keep in mind that the Korean Peninsula is wedged in there between China and Japan, where a lot of allied and U.S. capability would be potentially involved in a Taiwan conflict,” he said.
He added, “This means that China is going to have strong incentives if they are not able to, say, achieve a quick win [over Taiwan] to expand geographically their aggression against U.S. bases in the region in a way that will put potentially … the Korean Peninsula right in the middle of that situation.”