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North Korea hostility toward the South puts China in a spot

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton goes to South Korea Wednesday. But Friday's visit to Seoul by China's premier may do more to determine whether tensions keep rising between North Korea and South Korea.

By Staff writer / May 25, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gestures at a press conference in Beijing, China, Tuesday. Clinton stepped up pressure on China on Tuesday to back international action against North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship, calling peace and security on the Korean peninsula "a shared responsibility" between Washington and Beijing.

Andy Wong/AP

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Washington

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits South Korea Wednesday to express American support for Seoul in its escalating crisis with North Korea. But it may be another visit to the South Korean capital – by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Friday – that does more to determine whether tensions continue to rise between the two Koreas.

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US support for South Korea was never in doubt. But China – which values its ties to each of the Koreas, though for different reasons – will be watched for its ability, as a rising regional and global power, to navigate a tricky situation.

Premier Wen will encounter a South Korea unhappy that Beijing has not publicly condemned North Korea for the March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. China’s first priority is to avoid a destabilization of North Korea that could send thousands of refugees over the border from its impoverished and backward neighbor, Asia analysts say. But China also wants to avoid damaging its growing economic and cultural ties to the much more dynamic South.

“This trip is fortuitous, because it is very likely to put more pressure on the Chinese to take a position that is more favorable to South Korea,” says James Clay Moltz, a Northeast Asia security expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “The Chinese haven’t wanted to do anything to shake up the North, but at the same time they are not eager to upset the South Koreans, so this incident has put them in an uncomfortable bind.”

Wen’s trip has been planned for months to allow him to represent China at a weekend trilateral summit with South Korea and Japan.

China’s cautious response to the Korean crisis so far has not only irritated South Korea, but it has also disappointed Secretary Clinton. She had hoped to win Beijing’s support for UN Security Council action that would signal to Pyongyang that its “provocative” acts will be answered.

Beijing’s handling of the crisis has also prompted doubts among China analysts about the rising economic power’s readiness for a larger global political role.

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