China is the genuine victor in any deal with the North Koreans

By Sushil Seth  / 

Mon, Feb 26, 2007 - Page 9

There has been a cautious welcome for the six-nation deal that might eventually lead to the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program. But there is still a long way to go before that happens, if at all.

However, China must feel immensely pleased with itself for providing the venue for the conference over the last few years and having broken the logjam to facilitate what many regard as an important breakthrough.

From Beijing's viewpoint, this should have a positive impact on China's relations with the US.

Writing in the September 2005 edition of Foreign Affairs, Wang Jisi (王緝思), a prominent Chinese analyst, saw North Korea's nuclear issue as a critical factor in Sino-US relations.

He said: "In the field of international security, the primary focal point in Chinese-US relations is the North Korean nuclear issue. On this question, the Bush Administration has little choice but to act cautiously, relying on the six-party talks."

He added: "[But] If North Korea ever publicly, explicitly, and unmistakably demonstrates that it does possess nuclear weapons, the policies of the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- all of which favor a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula -- will have failed. The United States might then call for much tougher actions against North Korea ... The result could be new friction between China and the United States and a serious test of their relationship."


That didn't happen, as Beijing continued to be the only channel for continuing diplomatic contact with Pyongyang. By voting with the US for UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea (but not enforcing them), Beijing managed to cushion US anger and frustration, while at the same time promote the diplomatic option of the six-party conference in Beijing.

Wang also wrote: "If, on the other hand, the six-party talks are resumed, tensions between the United States and North Korea may ease, and China's role will then be more favorably recognized."

Prescient words.

He then wrote: "Should that occur [the resumption of talks], the countries involved in the process might even consider expanding the six-party mechanism into a permanent Northeast Asian security arrangement."

But he was not very hopeful on this score: "Under the current circumstances, however, such a possibility is slim. The more likely outcome is that tensions between Washington and Pyongyang will persist, although without an actual war breaking out."

And he is right, because the "breakthrough" deal is so vague and imprecise that Pyongyang is free to interpret it in its own way. For instance, it has already called the suspension provision for the nuclear program a temporary measure.

The deal is also silent on North Korea's parallel uranium enrichment program, which started the crisis in the first place when the US detected its existence.

What this means is that during the various stages of negotiations through working groups, six-party sessions and formal and informal bilateral talks between the US and North Korea on security guarantees and political normalization, there will be a minefield to cross. You would have to be a prophet to see where a successful conclusion might come from.

That being the case, China will remain an important interlocutor and facilitator to keep the show going, with all the detours and possible breakdowns on the way.

With the US mired in Iraq and confrontation with Iran looming, Washington is going to become even more dependent on Beijing in dealing with Pyongyang.

In other words, China will have the leeway to continue promoting and projecting its own political and strategic interests (often to the detriment of the US), knowing that Washington needs its goodwill in dealing with North Korea in particular, as well as other issues like terrorism and the Middle East in general.


A case in point is China's recent adventure to knock out one of its aging satellites in the first move toward a space war scenario. The US has tended to almost ignore this development that is likely to challenge US supremacy. Beijing has indeed gleefully accepted its new status by declaring China a willing partner in any international talks to prevent an arms race in space.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) said: "Since other countries care about this question [of China testing an anti-satellite missile] and are opposed to [the militarization] of space and an arms race in space, let us join hands to realize this goal."

With Washington preoccupied, Beijing is having a field day maximizing its influence. If this continues, Beijing will come to acquire a form of veto on many aspects of US foreign policy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

On the North Korean deal, for instance, Japan is reported to be upset that China and the US cobbled together the tentative agreement by ignoring the sensitive issue of abduction of Japanese by North Korea in the late 1970s and 1980s.

No wonder Wang Jisi, in his Foreign Affairs article, is hoping that the six-party talks on North Korea might develop "into a permanent Northeast security arrangement," enabling China to keep up pressure on the US.

Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.