MONTEREY, California - Beijing responded to North Korea's latest nuclear test
on Monday with a strong statement decrying Pyongyang's disregard for the common
goals of the international community and making clear the Chinese government's
"resolute opposition" to the test.
"China strongly demands that North Korea keep its promise of denuclearization
and cease all actions that could further worsen the situation," the Foreign
Ministry statement said.
North Korea's nuclear test followed last month's launch of a long-range missile
and a steady escalation of tensions on the peninsular. After the launch and
subsequent international criticism, North Korea announced it was expelling
inspectors, scrapping inter-Korean agreements and would "never" return to the
six-party talks. The talks involve China, the United States, South Korean,
Russia and Japan, and are aimed at dismantling the North's nuclear weapons
Pyongyang's defiant nuclear test has drawn further international condemnation.
The United Nations Security Council moved quickly to call an emergency meeting
which described the test as a clear violation of UN Resolution 1718, which
prohibits the reclusive communist state from exploding a nuclear weapon. It is
expected that the council will decide on further action in the coming days.
The nuclear test is another major setback for the international community, and
in particular the six-party talks, which began in August 2003. As the host of
this multilateral negotiation process, and a country with important stakes in
the stability of the region, China now faces major challenges. How to balance
its response to the test, while keeping in mind its longer-term security
interests, will be an important test of Beijing's diplomatic skills.
China's involvement in efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear issue
coincided with three phases of events. The first phase, between North Korea's
first announcement of nuclear plans in October 2002 and Beijing's hosting of
the first trilateral meeting between China, North Korea and the United States
in April 2003, saw a China reluctant to take up any active role in defusing the
crisis. Beijing argued that Pyongyang and Washington should find ways to
resolve their disputes and to return to the agreed framework.
However, the George W Bush administration's refusal to engage in direct
bilateral dialogue with North Korea, Pyongyang's withdrawal from the nuclear
Non-proliferation Treaty and its reactivation of the nuclear reactor at
Yongbyon, raised the stakes and convinced China that it had to step in and
defuse the situation.
The second phase began with the initiation of the six-party talks in August
2003 and ran through October 2007 when the six parties - the two Koreas, the
US, Japan, China and Russia - agreed on a nuclear disablement plan. China
played an active role not only as an impartial host but also an engaged and
skillful negotiator at each critical juncture of the bumpy negotiation process.
A joint statement made on September 19, 2005, and the action plan of February
13, 2007 laid out a road map for the eventual nuclear disarmament on the
peninsular, and Beijing's tireless efforts received well-deserved respect.
The change of government in South Korea in early 2008 ushered in the third
phase. The new Lee Myung-bak administration abandoned the reconciliatory
Sunshine policy of its predecessor and demanded reciprocity in inter-Korean
relations. Pyongyang reacted strongly to what it saw as a hostile policy from
the South. Major disputes also emerged between Pyongyang and Washington over
nuclear disablement and verification issues, and North Korea began in late 2008
to significantly slow the de-nuclearization process.
North Korea's latest nuclear test has now again put China on the spot. As the
UN Security Council deliberates its response and action in the coming weeks,
whether Beijing would agree to new and tougher sanctions has already become a
question of intense debate and speculation. There is also renewed focus on if
and how China can use its leverage to exert pressure on Pyongyang.
These are understandable - albeit for some unrealistic and even unreasonable -
expectations. Indeed, China has become North Korea's largest partner in trade
and investment, averaging US$2 billion annually in recent years and China
provides the North with significant energy and food supplies. Given that China
supports a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, there is ample reason to believe that
Beijing expects Pyongyang to respect that position. But so far events have
proven otherwise. Where is Beijing's leverage and why is it not willing to use
Looking at China's positions on the North Korean nuclear issue over the years,
one can summarize that they consistently emphasize three core elements:
denuclearization, peninsular peace and stability, and resolution through
diplomacy and dialogue. Beijing views North Korea's nuclear program as a
symptom, not a cause, of insecurity and instability in the region. Any action
that further aggravates the situation will not help solve but can only escalate
nuclear tension. This is why the Chinese government has called on all parties
involved to "respond in a calm and appropriate manner and persist in solving
the problems through consultations and dialogue".
Clearly, the issue is not whether China has the leverage and the willingness to
use it against North Korea; it is the calculation of what impacts on what
specific goals such pressure would generate. China has over the past six years
selectively used such pressure to good effect without completely losing
influence, however limited it may be. Beijing has already concluded, as have
many others, that the key to solving this problem remains direct dialogue
between Pyongyang and Washington.
China views stability on the Korean Peninsula as essential for its near to
mid-term strategic objectives, continued economic development, domestic
stability and international standing, as each requires a peaceful regional
security environment. For this reason alone, it can be expected that Beijing
will endorse condemnation of North Korea's behavior and limited but not severe
sanctions that could seriously undermine its interests. But getting to that
point depends on how skillful the Chinese diplomacy is in the corridors of the
United Nations Security Council.
Dr Jing-dong Yuan is director of East Asia Non-proliferation Program at
the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, and an associate
professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of