Thursday, January 20, 2011

What will Beijing do?

All Eyes on China in North Korea Torpedo Case

AOL News

(May 20) --
World leaders harshly condemned North Korea today after a multinational probe squarely blamed the rogue regime for sinking a South Korean military ship in March and killing 46 sailors. But China, the world power with the most influence over the so-called "hermit kingdom," had a noticeably tepid response.

In Beijing's only public remarks, Cui Tiankai, China's deputy foreign minister, called the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan "unfortunate" and did not acknowledge North Korea's responsibility. The White House on Wednesday characterized it as "an act of aggression."

The crisis over North Korea has moved to the top of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's agenda as she leaves today for a trip to Japan, China and South Korea.

China's response in the days ahead will be watched closely for signs of whether it's willing to join most of the world community in taking a harder line against North Korea.

But its cool reaction so far highlights China's special relationship with the otherwise isolated North Korean regime, as well as China's fears of instability on its borders and in the region.

Beijing is North Korea's key economic partner and treaty ally, giving it the most leverage on Pyongyang of any world power.

"China wants regional stability and peace in northeast Asia, and it wants to take things step by step," said Gong Keyu, an expert on China's relations with North Korea at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies. "That's why China didn't say too much about" the results of the probe.

"China wants to take a fair look and make things clearer, and then we can respond," she said.

China angered some in South Korea by waiting weeks to make any public statement on the March 26 ship sinking, even as other world leaders offered their condolences for the massive loss of life.

Gong said that China may send delegates, possibly along with North Korea, to South Korea in the coming days and weeks to seek clarification on the results of the probe. She said she personally is still not convinced that North Korea intended to strike such a deadly blow.

"I don't see a lot of reasons why North Korea would insist on doing this," she said. "Maybe they made a mistake. One possibility is they wanted to fire a torpedo to scare South Korea but didn't think it would be very, very serious."

She compared Pyongyang to "a boy who did something wrong, but didn't know it would be so serious, like breaking a glass -- he didn't know it would make his parents so upset."

South Korea, under pressure from hardliners at home to respond militarily to what they view as an act of war, is expected instead to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council. China will be key to that process, since it holds a Security Council veto and so can block any action.

But Gong said that China may use the Security Council's current focus on the Iranian nuclear issue as an "excuse" not to discuss the ship-sinking issue right away.

Another Chinese expert on North Korea, Zhang Liangui, told the Telegraph that China could be pushed to take sides at the U.N.

"South Korea's submission of its report to the U.N. will clearly force China into making a stance, and this will be a challenge," Zhang told the Telegraph. "This will be handled by the foreign ministry, but my view is that China, in accordance with its rising status as a major country, should not go against the rest of the world, but should consider its interests in line with the majority."

So why is China so loathe to turn the heat up on its loose-cannon neighbor?

A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington security think tank, gave several reasons.

China wants to preserve the status quo of two Koreas, and fears that instability in North Korea could hurt its northeast provinces. Beijing also fears that a crisis could lead to a massive flood of refugees into northeast China, and could result in a hostile North Korea on its border -- or a beefed-up South Korean and U.S. military presence just next door.

"The Chinese want to avoid a hostile relationship with their neighbor," Bonnie Glaser, one of the report's authors, said at a recent CSIS forum. "They believe that relationship remains exceptionally important."

Gong, the Chinese scholar, said China was trying to get North Korea to pursue economic reforms that could make it more self-sufficient, such as those followed by China itself since the late 1970s.

"We want to show North Korea that we are a very good model -- 'You can follow me,'" Gong said.

Meanwhile, she said the South Korean ship-sinking crisis could actually be an opportunity for the U.S. and China. "This is a very good chance for China and the U.S. to understand each other better," Gong said. "So I think things will be much clearer in the coming days and weeks."

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