China's Reluctant Regional Hand

The tragic incident in the Yellow Sea where 46 South Korean sailors were killed two months ago with the sinking of the corvette Choeonan was the ultimate shriek of alarm. The attack by North Korea has thrust on Beijing, the North's traditional ally, the problem of showing the global community how it should act in seeking to preserve regional peace and stability.

As expected, China has been extremely cautious, eventually disappointing the South Korean government, which had wanted Beijing to endorse the comprehensive 400-page report into the sinking released last week by a panel of international, presumably impartial experts. The report produced torpedo fragments consistent with North Korean weaponry. Nevertheless, China still says such samples are inconclusive since they could not be traced directly to the North.

Instead, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said during a summit meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, on May 28, that China would make a judgment in an "objective and fair manner and take its stance on the basis of facts regarding the sinking of the warship."

As the powerhouse of Northeast Asia, China has taken for granted that it has a moral and political right and duty to exercise leadership for the maintenance of peace and stability on the potentially volatile Korean peninsula, where the two Koreas remain still legally only at armistice since the Korean War broke out in 1950. In this regard, few analysts here in Seoul predict that the China's current leadership will remain a back-alley brawler on behalf of the North over the investigative report, even given that North Korea is China's ‘blood-shared ally.'

Despite its reluctance to act against the North, China seemingly has decided to become a responsible guardian of the poverty-stricken regime, which is in fact economically and militarily a pygmy compared to China itself. North Korea has already descended into a welter of poverty, malnutrition and brutal oppression.

As one of the veto holders on the United Nations Security Council, China is highly likely to stall the Cheonan case over the long run by deterring an angry South Korea from bringing the issue before the Security Council. Fundamental distrust over the conclusion pervades every aspect of Chinese foreign policy. When asked about the investigation into the incident, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu reportedly reiterated an earlier Chinese statement that fell short of assigning blame.

Needless to say, China has no desire to do serious damage to the ramshackle North, since one of its principal strategies in the region is to keep the balance of power on the Korean peninsula and from that standpoint it must ensure that the regime survives. What is genuinely complicated is not so much the issue of the Cheonan as the uncertainty of the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing if the North's actions are to be debated at the UN, since North Korea, being at least on paper a nuclear power, shows no sign of being beholden to China.

What both North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his loyalists really want is to maintain an unchanged relationship between the two traditional allies. The ill-appearing Kim, aged 68, and his cohorts have no vision other than the stable and guaranteed succession of his third son, Kim Jong-un, in power. A significant number of North Korean refugees say that if the youngest son does not completely resolve problems in the cratering economy, he could be hanged higher than a magnolia tree in bloom.

In truth, China has not forgotten how to push the buttons to continually remote-control the North, which contains potential riches in terms of undeveloped natural resources and the social infrastructure for the sustainable development of China as a rising superpower, such as long-term contracts for billions of tons of Chilean copper, Australian coal, and Brazilian iron. That said, China is playing the North Korea card shrewdly against South Korea and in particular, the United States.

China is not interested in the voluminous report at all. It is not important to China whether a torpedo was actually fired by a North Korean submarine unless the North reveals the truth. For China, international relations are fundamentally a struggle for the expansion of national interests. There is no doubt that the existence of the Kim regime in the northern part of the peninsula is the core of Chinese East Asian foreign policy to prevent the United States from exerting its influence upon the potentially shaky regime. That cake was not baked overnight.

While the United States sticks to putting a hostile sanctions resolution against the North, China appears to be seeking quiet diplomacy, often using genteel rhetoric to boost its public image and to leverage deals. At the same time, China is pulling the North into its orbit by dangling economic carrots, even as it claims that Beijing's official foreign policy is "noninterference."

The multinational investigative team feels, however, that the report constitutes in a perfectly real manner overwhelming evidence against the North. The Kim regime's provocative behavior in question is hardly just a peccadillo. In this context, China's stance, outrageously biased in favor of the bellicose North, no longer holds any appeal for anybody. China should stop taking advantage of most of the countries' refusal to deal with the North where brutalization and corruption have become bureaucratized and join the global alliance in punishing the North.

This is not a question of charity. China should recognize that it is not the best option for the peace and stability of the peninsula to nullify another UN sanctions resolution against the Kim regime, at least unless it wants member states of the UN to believe that friendliness to rogue states is the hallmark of its foreign policy.

Diplomacy needs to progress quietly from time to time, but not now. By continually refusing to blame North Korea openly, Beijing ultimately will weaken its influence to deal Pyongyang. "Strategic ambiguity" is foolishness, that is certain. The message from the international community is crystal-clear: China must learn from this case the importance of responsible diplomacy as a global leader.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.