US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to China hasn't achieved much. North Korea is still adamant about its nuclear ambitions and Beijing remains wary about any dramatic action against Pyongyang to bring home the message.
The atmosphere during Rice's visit was good, and some unattributed Chinese sources sought to give the impression that China was somehow making progress with its difficult neighbor. For instance, Tang Jiaxuan(
There was no elaboration of what he meant by this.
Of course, there have been unconfirmed reports that Kim told the envoy there would be no further tests. It was even reported that Kim apologized for the first test.
According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, "Kim said during a meeting with Tang that North Korea would not conduct an additional nuclear test unless the US harasses the North."
Yonhap also quoted a source as saying that, "Kim also promised that North Korea would return to the six-way talks in the near future as long as the US promises to lift financial sanctions after the talks reopen."
At the official level, though, China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (李肇星) would only say that Tang's visit had increased "mutual understanding" and he discussed how to revive the six-party talks.
Apparently, China has been trying to create an impression of some forward movement by encouraging or floating these rumors. The fact, though, is, as Rice said in Moscow (where she went after her China-visit), that: "Councillor Tang did not tell me that Kim Jong-il either apologized for the test or said that he would never test again."
In other words, if the US was hoping to swing China to its position of hardening the sanctions regime, Rice's visit was futile.
As before, China continues to push its own central role by way of six-party talks. But so far, the on-off six-party talks have even failed to prevent Pyongyang from testing a nuclear device.
The US is not ruling out returning to the six-party forum and for the North to re-engage in talks. As Rice said, "The Chinese are emphasizing the need for six-party talks to begin again and for the North to re-engage in talks."
She maintained that the US had no problem with that, but Washington will not lift sanctions to accommodate Pyongyang.
The arguments thus keep going around in a circle, without any serious analysis of whether or not the six-party talks, if resumed, would go anywhere. Which, on the basis of the record so far, is not at all encouraging.
Indeed, according to prominent Chinese security analyst Shen Dingli (
Beijing fears that any toppling of the Kim Jong-il regime might not only create a flood of refugees into China, but could even lead to the installation of a pro-US government, thus complicating its security problems.
In some way, Shen brings in Taiwan as a factor in Beijing's Korea policy. According to him, "China must continue to look at North Korea through the prism of Taiwan.
You cannot expect China to abandon its ally completely while the US continues to back Taiwan and allow the independence movement to thrive there."
North Korea, therefore, is not simply a question of its nuclear arsenal. It is part of a larger equation of US-China relations. What it means is that North Korea is sometimes a problem because it doesn't always do China's bidding, as was the case when it went ahead with its atomic test.
But, with all its imperfections, it is an important strategic tool, with the US still looking to Beijing to somehow bring Pyongyang into line on the question of nuclear proliferation.
Clearly, the US doesn't want to attack North Korea. In its present state, with Iraq and domestic politics the prime issues, it is in no position to do that. Its only option, therefore, is a strict enforcement of UN sanctions.
But these might not work without Beijing coming on board, which is unlikely to happen.
Washington is not happy with China for pussyfooting on the question of sanctions. Beijing knows that this could seriously damage its relations with Washington at some point. It is, therefore, trying to reinvent the six-party forum.
It was in this context that it sought to float all sorts of rumors about Kim's apology and his promise to Tang that he wouldn't conduct another test.
During her China visit, Rice was persuaded that Tang had delivered a "very strong message to the North Koreans about the seriousness of what happened," after the atomic test.
But she didn't think it meant much as "there wasn't anything particularly surprising" that came out of Tang's North Korean visit.
Whether or not the six-nation forum is revived will depend on Pyongyang's attitude. Washington apparently is not opposed to the idea but is unlikely to lift sanctions to accommodate Pyongyang. And Kim reportedly won't come unless the lifting of the sanctions is promised.
Therefore, unless the deadlock is broken for the talks to resume, the situation will remain tense. According to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, North Korea might try to bust sanctions through military action.
During her Japan visit, Rice assured her hosts that "The United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range ... of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan."
That should apply equally to South Korea in the event of a North Korean lunge across the border.
Hopefully it will not come to this. But if it does, how will China respond?
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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