[NOTEBOOK]China’s quiet supporting role

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[NOTEBOOK]China’s quiet supporting role

Let’s suppose the North Korean nuclear crisis were a drama. North Korea would, naturally, be the main actor in this complicated story. Its every move catches everyone’s attention. Who would be the essential supporting actor?
The United States has undertaken too few lines to take that role. Its dialogue consists of nothing but sporadic threatening, blunt remarks aimed at the protagonist.
South Korea could be a candidate for the role, but it is acting too cautious and covertly. Its main moves are to shuttle between the United States and China very anxiously. As such, something is lacking for Korea to be called the essential supporting actor.
How about China? First of all, China arranges the meetings. As it pays attention to plausible announcements, the country often appears on television. Through the statements of its foreign ministry, China sometimes makes some weighty remarks. Judging from both the scope of its actions and its important lines, China is deserving of the role of a supporting actor in the North Korea nuclear crisis drama.
The debate over China’s role has again become the topic of conversation these days. There are two arguments. The first is that China’s role has limits. Support for China’s role, which peaked last year, has turned downward since North Korea’s declaration that it possessed nuclear weapons on Feb.10. Some people even say, “Even China has no particular solution.”
The other argument points out that China has still absolute influence over North Korea, and in doing so overstates China’s role as a troubleshooter of the North Korea nuclear problem. Their expectations are often aired in the American media, saying that if China sympathizes with the United States’ stance immediately, China is likely to impose sanctions on North Korea.
The arguments defining China’s role falls between these extremes―underestimation and overestimation. But in fact, China’s response has always been invariable. Beijing has always maintained its stance as a mediator.
Where would China’s prudence and composure come from? Some observers in Beijing say there are rules for China’s foreign policy strategy and all other ramifications are coordinated according to these principles. Their explanation is that because China has a strong belief in those principles, the country can maintain a prudent course.
In that case, what are China’s principles? China places a strategic emphasis in foreign relations on the “stability of the surrounding environment.” China sees this as an essential base for steady economic growth.
In this context, North Korea is China’s important strategic partner. Of course, it is a troublesome neighbor who causes various problems, but it is also a trustworthy neighbor that solidly defends a corner of Northeast Asia and acts as a bulwark against the United States, which sees China as a potential threat.
This is also the reason that China does not make careless or vague remarks about imposing sanctions or putting pressure on North Korea to solve the nuclear problem. Seen as a clear-headed, deliberate supporting actor, China is carefully solving the North Korean nuclear issue in its own way.
Let’s take a look at how China handles North Korea. The country urges North Korea to return to the negotiation table through private pressure but never mentions the heavy oil and crops that it provides as free aid.
This is a preventive measure that serves to help its ally keep its pride, and it also dodges the United States’ demand to impose an economic blockade around North Korea.
Because China endures everything for the “stability of the surrounding environment,” its foreign policy always looks like it was made by cool-headed realists.
Therefore, it is rash to expect that China will sufficiently meet the expectations of South Korea, the United States and Japan. The argument that China has limited influence on the North is also premature because China is realistically the only country that can persuade North Korea to return to the six-party talks.
Our best strategy would be to lead the drama titled “The North Korean Nuclear Crisis” to a happy ending by capitalizing on China, the levelheaded and realistic supporting actor in this unfolding saga.

* The writer is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yoo Kwang-jong
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