Crises teach us new things. The key near-term objective for South Korea and its partners is to fashion a response to the Cheonan sinking that is strong enough to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from considering a future attack, but not so strong that it provokes a war.
The actions announced this week by the Lee Myung-bak government and its partners are a good start in this direction. They have received support from every law-abiding and peace-loving nation in the world. However, the primary impediment to re-establishing deterrence on the Korean Peninsula right now is China. The Cheonan sinking unfortunately has taught the world several disturbing new lessons about China.
First, it remains mired in anachronistic Cold War thinking. In the name of communist brotherhood, Beijing has basically acted like North Korea's defense lawyer in the court of public opinion. It has not condemned the most blatant act of North Korean military aggression since the Korean War. It has not acknowledged that the torpedo attack was a clear violation of the 1953 armistice. It has only described the death of 46 South Korean brave young sailors as "unfortunate." This communist allegiance is ironic because it was once the Chinese who accused the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan of hanging on to anachronistic alliances.
Second, China has shown complete disrespect for its relationship with Seoul. Only three days after President Lee Myung-bak met with President Hu Jintao in Shanghai and discussed the Cheonan investigation, Hu stood smiling and with open arms embracing Kim Jong-il. Despite Lee's entreaties, Hu did not even have the courtesy to let the South Koran president know that he would host Kim.
Chinese would explain this diplomacy as consistent with a practice since 1992 normalization of relations with Seoul to maintain equidistant relations with both Koreas. The problem is that when North Korea undertakes aggression against the South, it becomes impossible for China to maintain even-handed treatment: business-as-usual relations with Pyongyang will negatively impact Seoul-Beijing relations. It is that simple.
Third, China's behavior over the Cheonan raises real questions about its purported role as a rising new leader in Asia. At each step in this crisis, Beijing's response has been weak, clumsy, and out of step with the international community. Its leaders have appealed for calm and a return to six-party diplomacy. This is a meaningless. Rather than appeal for calm, Beijing should be thanking Seoul for remaining calm as it has methodically pursued an investigation and refrained from premature accusations, use of force, and knee-jerk anger.
Beijing's call for a return to six-party diplomacy is essentially an attempt to sweep the deaths of the 46 seamen under mounds of diplomatic double talk. Again, if the near-term issue for peace and stability is to reestablish conventional military deterrence on the peninsula, how does a return to the six-party table achieve that? This is not the behavior of a great power.
China experts will respond to this argument by explaining that Beijing cannot side wholly with Seoul because it must hedge against too much pressure that could lead to the North's collapse. But here, then, is perhaps the most important lesson of the Cheonan: China stands as more of an obstacle to Korean reunification than any other power today.
The irony, of course, is that for years the claim was that the U.S. and Japan were secretly opposed to reunification. But the most recent Obama-Lee joint statement speaks clearly of a future Korea that is united and free, and the Japanese clearly see the current nuclear armament of North Korea as much more of a threat than a united Korea under the South.
So China needs to make a choice. It needs to support South Korea in the UN and punish North Korea for its aggression in order to keep deterrence and peace in the region. Or it can continue to pour money down a dying regime while it loses its diplomatic reputation in the process.
By any metric, Beijing's future on the peninsula is with the South. South Korea's business with China per year (US$180 billion) is one hundred times its business with North Korea ($1.8 billion). Seoul hosts the world with the G20 Summit and future Nuclear Summit, while Pyongyang stews in its poor isolation.
China may still respond that it supports Kim because of preferential access to minerals and other economic assets in the North. But this also defies good business logic. When North Korea collapses, what will happen to Beijing's claims then? It would seem to make good sense to start working with Seoul today if Beijing wants to ensure its place on the peninsula tomorrow.
By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.