China in the hot seatThe Korean Peninsula is at crossroads between war and peace. If North Korea attempts another belligerent attack and South Korea responds with equal force, we may not be able to avoid a war.
The U.S.S. George Washington- a symbol of U.S. military power - has already joined in naval drills in the Yellow Sea in the aftermath of the North’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island last Tuesday. The island’s remaining residents have been ordered to evacuate.
The international community is closely watching the naval exercise and the response from North Korea. Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a senior foreign policy adviser, flew into Seoul on Sunday for a tete-a-tete with President Lee Myung-bak. With tensions escalating to their highest level in years, Beijing has finally moved in to mediate.
The current situation puts China on the hot seat. The Yeonpyeong attack was inarguably a military one by the North. If it does not step in, China, too, risks regional instability that could damage its national interests.
The standoff may be between the two Koreas, but in a broader context this is between two hegemonies - the United States and China. The contest comes as Washington challenges Beijing’s ascent on the global stage. The U.S. was forced to move a joint naval exercise away from the Chinese coast after the sinking of the Cheonan naval ship because of protests from Beijing. But this time North Korea has audaciously crossed the line, which justifies the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea. The Chinese mainland is now equally under the threat of satellite radar and the operation of U.S. warships. Such quick and resolute action from Washington must have hastened the diplomatic initiatives coming from Chian.
Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei delivered Beijing’s suggestion that envoys to the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization should meet in early December. But President Lee rejected the proposal, saying it wasn’t the right time. Committing to six-party talks while North Korea continues its belligerent campaign may reflect negatively on the South Korean government, which is already under heavy fire for responding feebly to North Korean attack.
For China, North Korea is a double-edged sword. The country may be helpful as leverage against the U.S., but it is also a time bomb for Beijing. China must do all it can to prevent further provocations from the North, including instituting measures to cease food and oil aid.