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    Greater China
     May 28, 2009
Beijing weighs its options
By Jing-dong Yuan

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 nuclear 

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 program.

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 it?

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 International Studies.

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