[Viewpoint] Cheonan is a crucial test for China

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[Viewpoint] Cheonan is a crucial test for China

China has emerged as the key variable in the resolution of the attack on the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan. China’s influence on North Korea is growing, and Pyongyang’s “exit strategy” is highly likely to be presented through China.

If Beijing joins in the international push to mete out justice to the perpetrator who sank the ship, the North Korea issue could develop into a new situation. So last Friday’s summit meeting between President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was a crucial opportunity to discern Beijing’s attitude.

China has shown some changes from its cautious stance of two months ago. Beijing was disappointed by Pyongyang’s behavior, and, having promoted itself as a responsible world power, it is hard for it to ignore the clamor from the international community.

It is also necessary to consider the position of South Korea, with whom China has built a “strategic partnership.”

Wen said that China values the responses of the South and other countries and would not defend any guilty party once its own investigation had determined fault. The remark suggests that China’s attitude has at least neutralized.

However, China stopped short of supporting the conclusion that North Korea was involved, saying it will “determine its position based on objective and impartial judgment,” although President Lee directly and actively explained that the ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack.

It is a roundabout way to suggest that China would need its own investigation to determine who is responsible for the incident.

Moreover, Wen emphasized that Beijing opposes and denounces any act that destroys the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, and repeated his country’s position that the six-party talks and the Cheonan incident should be dealt with separately. His comment revealed that it is more important to China to avoid elevated tension than to clarify the cause of the tragedy.

We need to watch China’s attitude closely, and consider what it means.

First of all, in China’s North Korea policy, maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula corresponds to its national interest.

In this context, we can understand China’s separation of the “North Korea issue” and the “North Korean nuclear issue” when the United Nations imposed sanctions after the North’s nuclear experiment.

Second, the Communist Party is playing a more prominent role than the foreign ministry on “North Korea issues,” such as the Cheonan incident. The party has been leading a series of programs to improve North-China relations, including Kim Jong-il’s visit to China. Its perception of North Korea is close to that of the traditionalists who value the North as a strategic asset.

Third, China is concerned that isolating and pressuring North Korea could damage its cooperation with the United States. In other words, Beijing hopes to prevent the risk of getting involved in the crisis and confronting the United States as tension on the Korean Peninsula escalates.

Premier Wen frankly revealed China’s dilemma when he said, “In case of a clash on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea, South Korea and China all will be hurt.”

In short, China does recognize the “political sensitivity” of the Cheonan incident but will be very prudent in translating its concerns into action. Having experienced the irony of losing its influence over North Korea as soon as it used its power during the nuclear crisis, China is likely to feel that it wants a buffer before bowing to pressure to join the UN Security Council’s sanction of North Korea.

Nevertheless, the Cheonan incident has become a touchstone for reconfirming China’s role as a responsible power and a regional leader.

The key is for Beijing to ask North Korea to take responsibility for a “wrong action” and display the capacity to effectively control the situation on the Korean Peninsula at the same time. Whether it can do this is the variable that will determine the scope of China’s future role on the Korean Peninsula.

The course of persuading China poses many foreign policy challenges to Seoul. In diplomacy, one must always deal with a foreign counterpart. So it’s hard to expect many changes all at once in China’s foreign policy, and with the North Korea variable, its policy on the Korean Peninsula is especially sensitive.

Nonetheless, South Korea might limit its own options if we complacently and arbitrarily interpret China’s diplomatic rhetoric at the summit meeting as being in our favor.

Such behavior only makes it harder to intelligently respond to the new agenda and unforeseen situation in the future. What we need at this juncture is to conjure up detailed strategic wisdom by looking a few steps ahead.

*The writer is a professor of politics and diplomacy at Sungkyunkwan University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hee-ok
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