An unusual strategic partnership

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An unusual strategic partnership

Chinese President Hu Jintao is still refusing to take President Lee Myung-bak’s calls several days after the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, even though the two sides’ foreign ministers are believed to have made contact. Lee has also spoken with his counterparts in the U.S., Japan and Russia since the news broke, but Beijing has maintained radio silence. South Korea has somehow failed to establish stable diplomacy with a major player among the four powers with interests in the Korean Peninsula.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has given the lame excuse that China is not used to talking over the hotline and that Beijing may not yet have fixed its position on how to deal with the transitional new regime.

If a dramatic change takes place on the peninsula, South Korea would be the first to feel the blow, followed by China. As such, it is only natural that the two sides should hold a summit to exchange views on the ramifications of Kim’s death. A stack of issues must be discussed, such as supporting the stability of the new Pyongyang leadership, contingency plans and controlling the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Soon after the official announcement of Kim’s death, Beijing issued a statement saying that ensuring stability on the peninsula should be the top priority. If that were a sincere position, Hu should take Lee’s call, especially as Seoul and Beijing are strategic partners. Such a demonstration of arrogance can only draw resentment toward China from its neighboring countries.

This is not the first time Beijing has turned its nose up at Seoul. It committed a diplomatic faux pas recently by not apologizing after the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel killed a South Korean Coast Guard member who was trying to restrain illegal fishing activities. It also sided with Pyongyang after the latter’s apparent attacks last year on a South Korean warship and inhabited island. If China wishes to gain respect from the international community, it must act more like a regional leader.

South Korea has little room for maneuvering between the U.S. and China. But the bottleneck has never been this bad. It may be partly due to Beijing’s increased clout, but Seoul may also share some of the blame for tending to favor Washington diplomatically. This has cost the government some leverage over North Korea when dealing with China. As always, balance is the key. Seoul must find a way to restore stronger diplomatic ties with Beijing.

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