Can the U.S. Bring China on Side Over N.Korea?

      June 29, 2009 11:25

      Washington is trying hard to persuade China to step up sanctions against North Korea under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 and join talks of five countries other than the North in the six-nation denuclearization talks, but China seems noncommital.

      ◆ U.S. Efforts

      Forming a new interagency task force to coordinate its actions with other nations, the U.S. plans to dispatch former ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg, who heads it, to Beijing early in July for discussions about sanctions against the North. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with her Chinese counterpart about the UN resolution. And at the 10th annual U.S.-China defense conference in Beijing last Tuesday and Wednesday, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy urged Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army, to take part in the sanctions.

      But Bejing has been carefully noncommital. Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Cheng Yonghua in a lecture on Friday said sanctions "are not the goal of Security Council actions. Political and diplomatic means are the only, certain and practical means to resolve the problems of the Korean Peninsula." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Thursday said, "Measures by the international community should not affect the livelihood of ordinary North Koreans and normal economic and trade activities." China also seemed unimpressed by a South Korean proposal for the other nations in the six-party talks to meet before sending the U.S. into bilateral talks with the North.

      Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (left) talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting held in Washington on March 11, 2009. /Xinhua

      ◆ China's Rationale

      Experts say the Chinese attitude is prompted by not only a traditional preference for the status quo on the Korean Peninsula but by several other factors as well.

      China is worried that the Washington-Pyongyang direct negotiations are a foregone conclusion if it heavily sanctions the North, which depends on China for most of its food and daily necessities. And that would cause its influence to decline.

      "China abhors a nuclear-armed North Korea no less than the U.S., but it can't put up with being sidelined in future dialogue. It's because of this that China keeps insisting on a resolution of the nuclear issue through the six-party talks, which it now chairs," said a government official. Another official said, "A key role for China must be found in any dialogue, and on this point, Beijing doesn't appear to trust Washington yet."

      There are also face issues at play. China is uncomfortable at being seen to have its hand forced by the U.S. without being given the proper respect, an official said. It is because Seoul and Washington proposed the five-party talks without consulting Beijing that the Chinese are against the idea, the official added.

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