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.

Andy Wong/AP
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.

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.

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.

“While most understand China’s dilemma, many see Beijing’s ‘muddle through’ strategy as a disappointing symbol of its inability to play a leadership role in East Asia commensurate with its rise,” says Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“China’s behavior thus far regarding the Cheonan has been clumsy, weak, and anachronistic,” says Mr. Cha, in a posting on the CSIS website. This “inability to make hard choices” is reflective of Beijing’s policy of treating the two Koreas as two separate issues – a policy Cha says is rupturing under the weight of the Cheonan crisis.

Clinton, who wrapped up two days of US-China strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing Tuesday, put a positive spin on the Chinese government’s response so far to the Korean crisis – reflecting US hopes of winning Chinese support for Security Council action down the road.

“The Chinese understand the gravity of this situation,” she said at a press conference following the dialogue’s close. “I think it is absolutely clear that China not only values but is very committed to regional stability,” she added, “and it shares with us the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a period of careful consideration in order to determine the best way forward in dealing with North Korea as a result of this latest incident.”

Clinton also said, “We expect to be working together with China in responding to North Korea’s provocative action, and promoting stability in the region.” But the lack of any joint pronouncement on the issue suggests that Washington and Beijing remain far apart on what that response should be.

China in the end may go along with a multilateral expression of disapproval toward North Korea, Dr. Moltz, says, but it won’t be anything strong. “My guess is they will eventually agree to a very watered-down critical statement” from the Security Council, he says. “But the focus will be on regret for the incident, rather than any robust condemnation [of the North].”

He says the Chinese “don’t like how this [incident] seems like it has the tail wagging the dog.” But he says they like even less the prospect of unforeseen repercussions from any strong international action against the North.


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