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China tries to balance fallout of Korean tensions

Rising tensions over North Korea's alleged sinking of a South Korean warship are providing an unwelcome reality check for Pyongyang's chief ally, China.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rising tensions over North Korea's alleged sinking of a South Korean warship are providing an unwelcome reality check for Pyongyang's chief ally, China.

Only months ago, Beijing was reaping kudos for sponsoring six-nation talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs. These days, it's looking increasingly isolated for failing to back U.S. and South Korean calls to get tough on Pyongyang in the face of what investigators say is overwhelming evidence the ship was struck by a North Korean torpedo.

The ship sinking and rising tensions put Beijing in an uncomfortable position, forcing it to choose between traditional communist ally North Korea and close trading partner South Korea. Beyond that, the situation is squeezing China between playing the responsible power it says it wants to be, and protecting a loyal buffer state reviled by the world.

For Beijing, none of the options look good.

"China won't pressure North Korea. That could lead to a crisis," said Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Shanghai's Institute for International Studies. "But if China keeps doing nothing, some countries may come to doubt our influence in the region and question whether Beijing is a responsible international player."

Strategic talks
Senior U.S. officials speaking after strategic talks this week in Beijing predicted that China will gradually endorse the view that North Korea should be held accountable for the March 26 torpedo attack. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

For now, however, Beijing appears to be buying time in hopes of an outcome that won't require it to take a clear-cut stance that could cripple relations with either Korea, with whom Beijing works to maintain a balance in ties.

On Wednesday, a vice foreign minister said the cause of the March 26 sinking in which 46 South Korean sailors died had yet to be determined, and called for dialogue in place of growing confrontation.

Beijing regards the destruction of the corvette Cheonan as "extremely complicated" and is "carefully and prudently studying and examining the information from all sides," Zhang Zhijun told reporters.

Chinese officials have been no more forthcoming in private, telling diplomats that the result of the international investigation blaming North Korea that was announced last week was inconclusive, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. They say Beijing has also faulted Seoul for rejecting North Korea's demand that it be allowed to send its own investigators to the South.

Yet the pressure on Beijing seems likely to only grow. On Friday, Premier Wen Jiaobao travels to South Korea for a three-way summit with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, and the incident is expected to feature prominently.

Should Beijing use its veto power?
Meanwhile, South Korea's plan to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council would force Beijing into a hard decision on whether to use its veto power to quash the discussion. Doing so might preserve relations with Pyongyang but could be disastrous for Beijing's hopes of being seen as a rising, responsible regional and world power.

"They're in a quandary," said Yoon Deok-min, a professor at South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

"Protecting Pyongyang — this is an extremely difficult stance for Beijing to take. Internationally, this will translate into China defending what's been clearly declared as a provocation," Yoon said.

Beijing's apparent tolerance of North Korean provocations is predicated on its overweening aversion to any steps that could seriously destabilize the regime in Pyongyang and bring chaos and refugees to its northeastern border.

Even state-sponsored academics in Beijing say that fear of a North Korean collapse — and the loss of an important buffer between China and U.S. troops based in South Korea — serves as cover for Pyongyang to act out.

"Some say China has almost been hijacked by North Korea," Gong said. "The little brother is always hiding behind China's back and every time he makes trouble, China gets pushed out there to deal with it."

Unique relationship
The uniqueness and sensitivity of the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship was displayed during a rare visit to China by the eccentric and reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, just weeks after the Cheonan's sinking. Beijing closed highways to cater to his aversion to air travel and played along with increasing farcical attempts to keep his presence in the country a secret.

During the visit, Kim is believed to have secured crucial Chinese investment and economic assistance to prop up his impoverished communist state, already suffering from earlier U.N. sanctions and a cutoff of South Korean aid. That economic lifeline will be all the more vital following South Korea's decision Monday to sever many economic links with the North.

Yet despite its status as chief ally, Chinese officials and academics say Beijing has only limited influence with the hard-line communist regime. Past attempts to sweet talk Kim into reforming his dysfunctional command economy have yielded little, and repeated efforts to persuade him to return to the stalled nuclear talks have won only vague affirmations of the process.

Renewed negotiations look even more unlikely now, with South Korea saying a satisfactory resolution of the Cheonan issue must come first. That deprives Beijing of what had been a signature issue showcasing its avowed role as a responsible regional power able to bring the feuding sides together.

Given the bind it's in, Beijing would ultimately like to see the Cheonan crisis resolved through talks between the two Koreas, leaving China and the United Nations out of it, Gong and other analysts said.

Should the situation on the peninsula deteriorate, however, Chinese inaction could carry a high diplomatic price, said Steven Kim, a Korea expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

"I think there will be increasing international scrutiny and criticism of China and this will have negative impact on China's reputation as a responsible stakeholder and as a honest broker," Kim said in an e-mail.