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Do we really want China to be a responsible stakeholder in global affairs?

The West needs to be careful what it wishes for. Western capitals want China to be more responsible and active, but they don’t like it when Beijing is more assertive. China wants respect, but not responsibility.

By Michael Fullilove / December 3, 2010


North Korea’s recent provocations – showing Western scientists a new uranium enrichment facility and launching a deadly artillery barrage at South Korea – may soon be considered by the United Nations Security Council. That would provide a test for the Council – and for its only permanent Asian member, China.

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The last such test occurred in March, when North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, with 46 fatalities. Beijing made the implausible claim that Pyongyang’s responsibility was unproven. US and South Korean naval maneuvers off the Korean peninsula followed, but Chinese diplomatic maneuvers in New York confined the Security Council’s response to a weak statement from its president.

Thus the international organization’s response to the unprovoked sinking of a warship with substantial loss of life – a definite threat to international peace and security, one would have thought – was a presidential statement that did not even directly name the attacker. This was bad for the credibility of the United Nations; but it was worse for the credibility of China.

'China has to be on the right side of history'

China has its reasons for giving succor to its North Korean ally, and they are not all historical. It is anxious to avoid a collapsed state on its eastern border – or, for that matter, a strong state on its eastern border in the form of a reunified Western-aligned Korea. Yet is North Korea a worthy burden for Beijing to carry especially given the thickness of China’s economic ties with South Korea and Japan? Who wants to live next to an unhinged, family-owned regime that, sooner or later, will go under? A Chinese strategist described the choice to me starkly: “North Korea is the bad guy and South Korea is the good guy. China has to be on the right side of history.”

Growing savvy at the United Nations

North Korea fits the pattern of China’s broader UN relationship. In the past quarter-century, China has become a more skillful player in New York, represented by abler diplomats and behaving with more confidence in the Security Council chamber. Yet its approach to difficult security issues often seems more suited to a poor country than a great power.


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