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North Korea: China has much to lose

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COMMENTS

11 June 2010 14:24

Gilbert Rozman is Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and author of Strategic Thinking about the Korean Nuclear Crisis.

As observers write the obituary of the Six-Party Talks in the wake of the Cheonan sinking, they are overlooking the essence of these multi-layered negotiations. While the ostensible goal has been to persuade North Korea to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, the actual focus has been to convince China to make good on its off-repeated claim to support 'peace and stability'.

To maximise the chances of China not just vaguely supporting denuclearisation but actually joining in the condemnation of the North's violent behavior and pressuring it to desist, the US had to tighten coordination with South Korea and Japan and seek Russia's understanding. But above all, it had to devote countless diplomatic meetings to building trust with China.

The value of the seven years of consultations linked to the Six-Party Talks will be determined by the decisions China takes in response to this new, more provocative stage of North Korean behavior. This is a critical test of China's intentions as a rising power.

The sinking of the Cheonan should not have come as a surprise. Although many in China preferred the approach of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, the sinking was not caused by current President Lee Myung-bak's harder line, insisting on reciprocity and linkage between economic assistance and denuclearisation. Even a progressive South Korean leader would have eventually fallen short of the North's demands. It is also unlikely to be a result of Kim Jong-il's illness leading to a need to prove his third son's mettle as a worthy successor.

Rather, this is the logical outcome of Kim's own strategy, reaching a decisive moment when he had either to prove his commitment to denuclearisation or find a pretext to reject negotiations and then oblige others to reckon with his nuclear-armed state.

China has allowed self-serving arguments critical of US policy to obscure forthright analysis of the nuclear crisis. It avoided consideration of the real nature of the showdown, ignoring the importance of containing North Korea's destabilising ambitions. This is a longstanding Chinese failure, but it is most apparent of late.

When it decided to go forward with the Joint Agreement early in 2007, the Bush Administration relied on China's hardened position following North Korea's first nuclear test. As China preferred, the US would test North Korea's intentions in stages.

Only in late 2008 did it become absolutely clear that Kim Jong-il had lost all interest in this agreement. This was the time China was expected to reciprocate by joining in new measures to pressure his regime. Despite voting for a UN Security Council resolution, China soon revealed that it was reluctant to step up the pressure. Instead of recognising that the future of the multilateral cooperation centered in the Six-Party Talks depends on them becoming part of '5 vs. 1', China risked the collapse of security multilateralism.

If China allows North Korea to persist on its current course, China will have much to lose. Loss of trust in South Korea, which began in 2004 with a controversy over history, will accelerate, as many suspect that China's aim is control over the North rather than reunification.

An upsurge in Japanese alarm about China is also likely. Despite Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio's early idealism about forging an East Asian Community, at the recent trilateral summit in South Korea there was a divisive atmosphere when he sided firmly with Lee while Premier Wen Jiabao only delayed in giving a Chinese response to the Cheonan sinking.

Even the vaunted Sino-Russian strategic partnership is growing shakier, as Russian leaders recognise that, instead of gaining influence, their country is being used by China for its own plans to gain dominance.

Finally, under George W Bush the North Korean issue brought China and the US closer, and Barack Obama had hoped that this would continue. Yet, failure on this issue, as on the Iranian nuclear issue, could shift bilateral ties onto a downward spiral.

Many in China appreciate the importance of the North Korean issue as a test for their country, but they are unsure if the group of leaders obsessed with building comprehensive national power will be responsive.

The Korean peninsula was the first line of sinocentrism historically. The reconstruction of history by today's assertive China — claiming that the ancient Koguryo state, which straddles today's Sino-North Korean border, was part of China — is a leading indicator of a revival of sinocentrism.

Should Beijing exploit North Korean belligerence to try to gain the decisive position in an evolving crisis, its attempts to marginalise South Korea could be a harbinger that such historical views will be followed by assertions of power. Perceiving the US to be weakened and over-committed, Chinese leaders may be seeking an accelerated timetable for regaining Taiwan and pressing neighboring states to defer to China's leadership on security.

Capitalising on forces of instability in this fashion would be a sign of weakness; China could show self-confidence by working through multilateral institutions to build mutual trust.

Photo by Flickr user bbcworldservice, used under a Creative Commons license.

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