Hillary Clinton in China: a juggling act over North Korea, Iran

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a dual task – keep China on board for tougher sanctions against Iran and coax it into going along with an international condemnation of North Korea over the Cheonan warship incident.

Saul Loeb/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, center, stands alongside US and Chinese officials at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday, during the start of the second round of the US-China dialogue.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's task isn't easy: coax a reluctant Beijing to back a tough international response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship, even while keeping the Chinese on board for new United Nations sanctions against Iran.

At US-China security talks in Beijing, Secretary Clinton said Monday that China’s leaders “recognize the gravity of the situation we face” in the mounting tension between the two Koreas. But she stopped short of suggesting Beijing is ready to support punitive measures against Pyongyang over its apparent torpedoing of South Korea’s Cheonan in March.

The US-China dialogue – which includes a US delegation of more than 200 officials and extends to economic issues – is to continue Tuesday, before Clinton moves on to Seoul Wednesday.

South Korea's latest moves

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced Monday that his government will cease all trade and exchanges with the North over the Cheonan warship incident, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. An international panel of investigators determined last week that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship.

President Lee also announced he will take the Cheonan case to the United Nations Security Council as a matter of international security. The US is hoping to persuade Beijing that its ally in Pyongyang must be shown that such actions will draw “consequences,” as Clinton said last week. But US officials acknowledge that winning Chinese support for Security Council action won’t be easy – especially since the US is already pressing Beijing to maintain support for a new round of economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

China is always reluctant when it comes to Security Council measures such as sanctions, China analysts note. But Beijing is particularly wary of any measures against Pyongyang that might either provoke the regime there or destabilize its control over what for China is an extremely problematic neighbor, they add.

Will China stay on board with Iran sanctions?

The US wants to see swift action on what would be a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, but that drive hit a speed bump last week in the form of an agreement Brazil and Turkey reached with Iran to move a portion of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile to Turkey.

On Monday, Tehran submitted a letter to the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, with details of its commitments under the Brazil-Turkey plan. Some US officials have worried that Beijing, always shy about confrontational measures, could be wooed by the new uranium stockpile plan.

Chinese officials meeting with Clinton Monday used traditional Chinese diplomatic language to address the Korean situation. Although studiously avoiding a direct mention of North Korea – or Iran, for that matter – China’s State Councilor Dai Bingguo said in opening comments at the Great Hall of the People that “no attempt to stir up confrontation and stage war, be it a hot war, a cold war, or even a warm war, will be popular in today’s world."

Chinese President Hu Jintao noted the context of a bilateral dialogue and said China and the US share a responsibility for “managing regional hotspots” while “safeguarding world peace and security."

Not mincing words

Clinton, on the other hand, did refer to both North Korea and Iran directly.

Calling North Korea “a matter of urgent concern,” she reminded the Chinese that they joined their UN colleagues last year on “a strong UN Security Council resolution in the wake of North Korea's nuclear test.” Saying the North has now presented the world with “another serious challenge,” she said the two countries “must work together again” to press North Korea “to stop its provocative behavior, halt its policy of threats and belligerence toward its neighbors, and take irreversible steps to fulfill its denuclearization commitments.”

On Iran, she said the US and China “together ... have pursued a dual-track approach of engagement and pressure, aimed at encouraging Iran's leaders to change course.” While making no mention of the new uranium agreement, Clinton said the US and China “continue to cooperate in New York” on a resolution that “sends a clear message to the Iranian leadership: Live up to your obligation, or face growing isolation and consequences.”


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