Image: iStock
Image: iStock

China is adding troops to its 880-mile (1,416 kilometer) border with North Korea as tensions heat up, with one media report saying Beijing recently conducted live fire military exercises in the area.

The troops are reportedly part of a newly formed military brigade that is seemingly there to control an expected mass exodus of refugees should war or some other catastrophe break out on the Korean Peninsula.

It is certainly true that the People’s Liberation Army could easily be put to that use, but it seems like overkill to assign highly-trained military troops to that task.

A review of recent related events shows a pattern of China bolstering its forces on the border, though some other scenarios should be considered for why Beijing does this.

Back in least September 2003 as many as 150,000 troops were sent to the region, taking over border defense responsibilities from the police. Beijing explained that this was a routine change.

Lights along the Friendship and Broken bridges that link the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in China’s Liaoning province. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

In August 2015, there were reports of China adding tank destroyers and self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery and self-propelled guns along the border.

Then in the early months of 2016, Beijing sent another 5,000 soldiers to the area as tensions rose in response to Pyongyang having detonated a nuclear device. In May of this year, China put out a call for urgently needed Chinese-Korean interpreters.

These moves can be explained by concerns about a flood of North Korean refugees and the possibility the border could be a front line in a conflict with US-backed forces.

But another possibility is irredentism, or the political view that any territory that once belonged to a country should be returned to that country.

China’s irredentist views cover areas of Northeast Asia, including great parts of North Korea. This, of course, is a significant step further than solidifying a border in the event a North Korean collapse brings South Korean forces and their US allies onto China’s doorstep.

A North Korean soldier sits on a bank of the Yalu River just north of Sinuiju, North Korea, on April 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj

This fits with the fact China has always coveted direct access to the Sea of Japan, but Tsarist Russia annexed the area in 1860. Now Russia and North Korea block the path only ten miles (16 kilometers) short of that objective.

Thus, it needs to be considered that Beijing is amassing troops on its border with the North because if the Pyongyang regime falls in a military conflict with the South, China will make a land grab for North Korean territory.

A indicator of this is an editorial last April in the Global Times — the unofficial but state-owned news outlet for China — that suggested Beijing establish an international refugee camp inside North Korea to handle refugees during times of conflict or catastrophe.

Perhaps war or some other event leading to masses of refugees fleeing North Korea toward China won’t ever happen, but strategists considering Beijing’s ambitions need to add irredentism to their playbook.

(This story was corrected in paragraph 11 to show it was Tsarist Russia that annexed the region in question, not the Soviet Union.)

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