Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 9 News List

China saves face, and the day, over North Korea

AFP , BEIJING

The tentative agreement on North Korea's nuclear weapons is a face-saving coup for Chinese diplomacy and should ensure China succeeds in keeping the issue out of the UN Security Council, analysts say.

The six-party process has been a test of China's new international diplomacy and much has been riding on the outcome of a dialogue process it has initiated, hosted and driven.

Failure at the just-concluded fourth round of negotiations to produce concrete results could have made the multinational approach redundant and left China with egg on its face.

Analysts said Beijing was not prepared to let this happen and badgered the US and North Korea to ensure a positive outcome, rescuing the talks from a stalemate to a conclusion cautiously praised by world leaders.

The talks in Beijing ended on Monday with a North Korean pledge to give up its atomic weapons in return for energy and security guarantees.

"Getting a result was crucial as it is such a long-running issue. It was a face-saver for China," said Brian Bridges, an expert on North Asia at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

"They've put a lot of diplomatic clout into this -- it shows China is a responsible member of the international community. If they had failed to come up with an agreement it would probably have ended the six-party process. It would have reflected poorly on China," he said.

China's state-run media has taken every opportunity to praise Beijing's leadership on the issue, with the official Xinhua news agency saying on Tuesday that the agreement vindicated the six-party process.

"The passing of the statement proved that the six-party talks are an effective way to solve the Korean peninsula's nuclear issue in a peaceful manner," it said in a commentary.

The China Daily said it showed "diplomacy is paying off."

As well as its reputation and its relations with the US, which has pressured China to push its Stalinist neighbor harder to compromise on its nuclear weapons ambitions, China had other issues of concern.

Not least was a threat by the US to take the issue to the UN Security Council and press for sanctions against North Korea if the talks ended in failure.

China fears such a move could ultimately cause the North Korean regime to collapse and unleash turmoil on its borders, potentially opening the door to a flood of refugees seeking to flee an already impoverished country.

David Zweig, a political analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said this fear would have been nagging China as it harried the US and North Korea to find a deal.

"There's no question that they needed to see something concrete out of the talks," he said.

"The big risk for them was the US threatening to take the issue to the Security Council and seek sanctions. They wanted to avoid that at all costs.

"Sanctions would cause big problems for China. They could live with a nuclear North Korea but not with turmoil on its borders," he said.

Despite coming through with a first common document in four rounds of talks stretching over two years, much of the phrasing was vague and questions on the timing and verification of the dismantling of the North's nuclear weapons went unanswered.

And North Korea's hawkish statement on Tuesday that it would only scrap its nuclear programs after the US provides it with a light water reactor has also raised questions about the document.

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