Friday, December 3, 2010
China, the Enabler
What is China thinking? Its client and neighbor North Korea is becoming more belligerent by the week, and Beijing is still playing cynical diplomacy-as-usual.
To quickly recap: Last week, the North Korean military shelled a South Korean island — killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. Two weeks before that, the North flaunted a new nuclear fuel plant that could significantly increase its arsenal. Earlier this year, the North torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. The South has shown remarkable forbearance, but the risk of a wider confrontation grows with each incident. China is the North’s main supplier of food and fuel, but it is refusing to rein in Pyongyang. Beijing said nothing after the North unveiled its uranium plant. After the shelling, it refused to condemn the North. Only after the Pentagon sent warships to join South Korea in military exercises did China bestir itself, calling for a meeting of the six-party players — the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States — and exchanging diplomatic visits with Pyongyang.
Any warnings that China might be sending in private (and there is no guarantee of even that) were immediately undercut by more of its public enabling.
It saved its toughest words for the United States, warning against military activities that might infringe on waters around China. Then China blocked the United Nations Security Council from condemning the North’s dangerous behavior. And its foreign minister vowed that his country intended to remain neutral. On Thursday, a senior Chinese official declared that the China-North Korea friendship has long “withstood the tests of international tempests.”
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo were correct to spurn China’s call for a six-party meeting. Negotiations backed by sanctions are the best hope of a peaceful resolution, and at some point they will have to re-engage with the North. But there is no evidence that Pyongyang or Beijing are ready to deal seriously with the North’s aggression or its nuclear ambitions.
The Obama administration’s decision to send an aircraft carrier group into the Yellow Sea reinforced support for Seoul and got China’s attention. It was also important that the carrier moved on to Japan after four days — ready to return if needed. We are not sure that the administration has much of a strategy beyond that.
When American, South Korean and Japanese officials meet on Monday in Washington, they need to have a serious discussion about what it will take to get North Korea to calm down and into serious negotiations. We suspect that, for now, China is the only one with leverage. It could block deliveries of luxury goods to North Korea’s elite or suspend fuel shipments.
That means Monday’s talks in Washington need to be as much about China and how to persuade it that enabling North Korea is a very dangerous game.
China has long made clear that it has only two concerns when it comes to the Korean peninsula: stability on its border and limiting the American presence. Before it’s too late, it needs to realize that an erratic, increasingly aggressive neighbor armed with nuclear weapons is anything but a recipe for stability — or for an American military drawdown. New York Times