China's big-foot diplomacy

Beijing plays the role of 'honest broker' during six-party talks over North Korea.

Whatever results from the past 10 days of wrangling in Beijing on the North Korean nuclear standoff, one thing is certain: China is likely to garner credit for having played the role of "honest broker."

But if China's reputation is being burnished by its big-foot diplomacy, its leaders are also getting a close hand look at the perils associated with trying to push two entrenched opponents - the US and North Korea - toward common ground.

"China has tried to achieve something from this six-party conference, to project themselves as a responsible great power," says Seo Jin Young, professor at Korea University. "They especially want to prove themselves as a responsible power on the Korean peninsula."

The past week of negotiations, which started July 26, has seen what one Japanese diplomat characterized as "fierce exchanges" over draft statements of principles circulated by the Chinese. By Tuesday, all parties but the North - the US, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China - had agreed to a document that is said to include promises of fuel oil and electricity, normalized relations with the US and Japan, and security guarantees.

Key dispute: energy programs

But South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Thursday that the North was balking at the extent of denuclearization called for in the document, objecting to the inclusion of its country's nuclear energy programs.

The North's refusal to budge forced the Chinese into a form of shuttle diplomacy this week between their North Korean ally and the American team, holding talks with both sides until late Wednesday night and again Thursday. The issue of "sequencing" - the choreography of who makes what concessions when in the process of exchanging aid for denuclearization - also remains a key stumbling block.

By press time Thursday, the outcome of the talks was highly uncertain, with chief US negotiator Christopher Hill indicating that the endgame was near.

"They have got to make real decisions," he said, adding that he had no plans to meet bilaterally with the North again. "We need to have a situation where we know precisely what they have agreed to do.... We cannot have a situation where [North Korea] pretends to abandon its nuclear programs and we pretend to believe them."

Still, some hope remained that the talks would yield some sort of statement that would allow the diplomatic process to continue. But even if China is ultimately able to deliver very little from this round, it may be able to claim victory.

"So long as the institution of the six-party talks persists, [China] remains above the fray and continues to derive some psychic benefit from being seen abroad and at home as steadfastly pursuing peace, despite the odds," says Alan Wachman, professor of international relations at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

Until now, the talks have been largely characterized by a relatively diplomatic tone as well as extensive direct contact between the US and the North. "China has had to work hard to pull in everyone," says Chu Shulong, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "Their role is to persuade everyone to keep some momentum, even if it's slow."

Indeed, having drawn North Korea into the fourth round, Chinese diplomats are also widely credited with encouraging the talks to continue far longer than the first three rounds, which ended in failure. But China had to go to greater lengths this time to draw North Korea back after a 13-month hiatus. The Chinese held out the prospect of a visit to North Korea by China's President Hu Jintao - an event that leader Kim Jong Il wants for his own prestige both at home and elsewhere, including in South Korea.

Impact on Taiwan

Some observers say that China is motivated in part by concerns about Taiwan, which the US steadfastly supports. While the US is unlikely to change its tough stance on the island democracy, which China claims, Washington could ratchet down tensions as a result of Beijing's help on the North Korean issue.

Others say Washington's hard-line policy may have impressed upon Beijing America's deep-seated concern over the North and helped move China to persuade North Korea to come to terms.

"If the United States is going to use very tough measures toward North Korea, then China is going to use some leverage on North Korea," says Hong Guang Hee, a critic of South Korea's policy of reconciliation toward the North.

Meanwhile, he adds, "North Korea has no intention to give up its nuclear program." All North Korea wants now is "to get time so they have a policy of muddling through."

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