Rice gets a taste of tough love
By M K Bhadrakumar
More than one interpretation can be given to the visible failure of the
diplomatic mission undertaken by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to
Northeast Asian capitals last week.
The North Korea nuclear impasse has become intractable. The latest indications
are that a resumption of the six-party talks involving Pyongyang and China,
Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan need not be expected within this year.
Yet in a curious way, the dust is beginning to settle already on
the collective outrage of the international community over North
Korea's nuclear test this month. A strange, ethereal calm is taking over
reminiscent of the "morning calm" that Koreans write songs about.
After the rude awakening on October 9, the six protagonists are no doubt
beginning to mull over things as national interests jostle for primacy amid
regional concerns. Cracks have appeared in the phalanx of the international
community that cannot be plastered over. China, South Korea and Russia on one
side are advocating restraint, patience and prudence. They want none of the
"proactivism" that the United States and Japan might like.
Perhaps Rice's mission to Northeast Asia was doomed to fail. She pitched
unreasonably high expectations of her mission. Talking to the media at the
State Department on October 16, she claimed that during her forthcoming
consultations in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and Moscow, she would seek additional
measures against North Korea and that the US would strive to "collectively
isolate" North Korea.
That was, of course, setting a most ambitious target for her mission - almost
unattainable. But such grandstanding was needed before the US domestic audience
at a time when foreign-policy successes have become extremely rare. Second,
Rice promised she would "affirm" to Japan and South Korea the security
commitment held out by the United States over the years.
That was a reasonable enough intention and relatively easy to fulfill. In
Japan, Rice's assurances of continuing US protection helped nip any incipient
discussion whether in response to the North Korean threat perception Japan too
should go down the nuclear path.
Whether the nuclear file has been conclusively closed in Tokyo for all time,
however, time only can tell. But for the present, Rice could hope to allay
China's fears of a nuclear-armed Japan and aspire to build on the resultant
commonality of interest between Washington and Beijing on this tricky front of
Having said that, it remains to be seen how Beijing might react if Washington
and Tokyo proceed from this point to accelerate their cooperation over missile
defense. The missile-defense deployment in Japan is ostensibly directed against
"rogue states", which is what Washington claims, but that is not how China (or
Russia) sees it. Beijing has been reticent in voicing its disquiet, unlike
Russia, which has been stridently opposed to the likely deployment of the
missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Third, Rice cleverly brought in the Iran nuclear issue. She urged the
uncontrollable leadership in Tehran to take careful note of Pyongyang's
punishment. Rice claimed she could visualize that the "Iranian government is
watching, and it can now see that the international community will respond to
threats of nuclear proliferation". This was a fair assessment insofar as
Iranians are indeed shrewd observers.
But Rice went on to say, "So the Iranian government should consider the course
it is on, which could lead simply to further isolation." Clearly, that was an
excessive claim - to link the North Korean sanctions and Iran. And injudicious
The Russian reaction was swift. Talking to the Kuwait News Agency, Foreign
Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out that "there is no evidence that Iran is
developing a nuclear-weapon program" and that even after conducting an
"unprecedented number of inspections, including those at short notice ... IAEA
[the International Atomic Energy Agency] has no grounds to assert that the
Iranian nuclear program has a military component".
Lavrov took note of "suspicions and questions" that lingered around the Iranian
nuclear program born out of Iran's 20 years of clandestine work. "But all this
does not mean," Lavrov stressed, "that it is possible to speak of there being a
threat to peace and security. And it is only such a threat that can warrant the
use of sanctions."
At any rate, Lavrov then went on to rebuff the US attempt to draw a parallel
between the sanctions against North Korea and the Iran nuclear issue. He said:
"Measures of influence can well be discussed. They may be most diverse. But we
firmly adhere to the only true understanding which has been reached both in the
UN Security Council and in the six [party talks] that any measures of influence
should encourage conditions for talks. We won't be able to support and will
oppose any attempts to use the Security Council to punish Iran or use Iran's
program in order to promote the ideas of regime change there."
Fourth, Rice claimed in her press briefing at the State Department that the US
had never been in a "stronger position" to counter Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Possibly this remark was aimed at the US domestic audience, given the sharp
criticism there that the administration of President George W Bush had
altogether bungled the North Korean problem from the very beginning.
Rice's claim, however, was far off the mark as far as the Northeast Asian
capitals were concerned. In the event, as the New York Times later summed up,
"The Bush administration's struggle to rethink a faltering Iraq strategy hung
over her entire trip like a shadow ... The administration may simply be in no
position to press its partners in a tougher way over North Korea.
"To paraphrase a comment - not entirely well received - by Defense Secretary
Donald H Rumsfeld, Ms Rice's cabinet colleague at the Pentagon, a nation goes
off to diplomatic negotiations with the bargaining chips it has, not the ones
it might like to have or will be able to have at a later date."
Except in Tokyo, Rice's mission, aiming at drumming up support for robust
action against North Korea, failed to produce results. This became most glaring
in Seoul and Moscow, somewhat less so in Beijing, where the Chinese leadership
would seem to have taken on board the style of Rice's mission even if
circumspection remained as regards its substance.
China wouldn't have been surprised by the United States' newfound collegial
approach in international diplomacy. And China possesses the accumulated wisdom
of millennia to know that the new approach is more a necessity than a virtue
for the Bush administration. But China would consider it in bad taste to
proclaim publicly that it could distinguish such sophistry.
Conceivably, Beijing would have been greatly amused to see the spin that Rice's
entourage repeatedly gave to the effect that one profound fallout of the North
Korea crisis would be that, at the end of the day, by working together so
closely on the vexed issues of Northeast Asia's security, Washington and
Beijing might end up in each other's arms sharing thoughts and dreams.
An unnamed US official was quoted as saying that Washington and Beijing were
finding themselves "on the same page". Rice herself encouraged such a belief
when she claimed she saw "some data points" that China is becoming more of a
partner on issues of importance to the United States, though this
transformation might not "happen in one fell swoop".
Indeed, of late Washington commentators have been wistfully recalling the late
president Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1972, and hinting at repeating
the same sort of "polarization" in the present-day circumstances between
Washington and Beijing that would help the US deal forcefully (and, one might
hope, effectively) with its increasingly difficult Russian partner buoyant with
the surging income coming out of its oil sales in recent years.
Indeed, Rice herself displayed an overt enthusiasm about the new role China
could play in the United States' geostrategy. In the media briefings given by
Rice and other unnamed US officials, there has been a studied attempt to depict
the Chinese leadership as willing to play an increasingly central role in the
Bush administration's myriad foreign-policy problems.
The contrived nature of Rice's enthusiasm for China was plain to see. Taking a
barely disguised swipe at her distinguished predecessor, Madeleine Albright,
she said, "I don't care how many times you visited Pyongyang. China had to be
part of this regime to deal with the North Korea nuclear problem, and you're
seeing it. Thirty years ago, you wouldn't have been able to get a Security
Council resolution on North Korea, and when you get one, it's Chapter 7, it's
15-0 and China is at the center of it. Not bad for a couple years' work."
Elsewhere, Rice revealed that a high-level delegation from China had given a
"strong message" to North Korea about the nuclear test. Chinese accounts of
Beijing's interaction with Rice, however, give more sober picture.
The Chinese reports quoted President Hu Jintao as conveying to Rice that China
has always been an advocate of "denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula;
China opposes nuclear-weapon proliferation; China firmly opposes North Korea's
nuclear test and adheres to the United Nations Security Council resolution;
China will consistently pursue a peaceful resolution through dialogue and
negotiation; the problem must be handled "calmly and with restraint"; the
situation should not be allowed to deteriorate or get out of control;
conditions must be created for the early resumption of six-party talks.
The Chinese commentaries have been quite explicit about Rice's mission. The
official China Daily commented that Rice had a three-point agenda. First,
Washington harbored doubts about how forcefully China would carry out the UN
sanctions, and Rice's consultations aimed at urging Beijing to "substantially
enforce" the sanctions. Second, Rice wanted to reassure China that Japan would
not "overreact" to the North Korean test. Third, Rice hoped to kick-start the
stalled six-party talks.
People's Daily separately dealt with the broader parameters of any emergent
Sino-American cooperation that the US commentators have been lately speculating
on. The Daily did some blunt talking. First, it said Washington's gunboat
diplomacy is unsuitable for the post-Cold War setting. The containment strategy
toward the ex-Soviet Union itself was a failure despite all propaganda hype and
US triumphalism to the contrary, as in real terms the Soviet Union collapsed
primarily because of "its own internal factors".
Second, the People's Daily said the UN resolution on North Korea "constitutes a
successful practice of multilateral diplomacy" and by no means lends itself to
interpretation as the element of a containment strategy. Third, "the relative
power of the United States in the world has been falling" despite its awesome
military might, and therefore the option of unilateralism is no longer
available in US global policies.
Fourth and most important, the Chinese commentary said the US must resort to
diplomacy and the UN forum in dealing with international crises, especially
involving the "nations of the axis of evil" vis-a-vis whom the United States
can "hardly shake off its responsibility respectively for the turmoil in Iraq,
and impasses in DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and Iran nuclear
The commentary concluded that now that the US "has learned some lessons" and
shows the readiness to return to the path of UN diplomacy, the international
community will not be found wanting to cooperate since that constitutes the
"fundamental path to the maintenance and management of security in the present
It remains to be seen whether Washington's expectations of serious differences
arising in China-North Korea relations are justified or not. China, of course,
has a relationship with North Korea that far exceeds the sweep of the current
nuclear issue - even if it is no longer as intimate as between "lips and
teeth". Thus China has swiftly denied reports that North Korean leader Kim
Jong-il apologized for this month's nuclear tests.
The Chinese spokesman added in an implicit reference to Rice's mission: "All
parties should not willfully interpret or expand the sanctions ... Sanctions
are not the end. They should serve the goal of peacefully settling the crisis
through dialogue and consultation." The Chinese statement has in essence
indicated that Beijing is unwilling to go anywhere near as far as Washington
seeks in punishing Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, Washington's "velvet diplomacy" toward China in drawing the latter
into a sort of condominium against a resurgent Russia doesn't seem to be
working either. China as a civilization rather than a nation-state would
conceivably have an altogether different notion of time and space. Also, Moscow
is certainly watching.
Not surprisingly, some of the harshest words on Washington's North Korea policy
came out of Moscow even as Rice was touring the Asian capitals. Foreign
Minister Lavrov gave a detailed analysis of the dimensions of the North Korea
problem. He said the core issue is North Korea's sense of insecurity, which is
only natural in an environment where "the factor of force in international
relations is manifesting itself", apart from "a very serious ideologization" -
read "Bush Doctrine" - of international relations under way.
Lavrov said the solution to the North Korea nuclear issue therefore lies in
offering "firm and convincing guarantees" regarding Pyongyang's anxieties over
security. Specifically, Lavrov called for the "settlement of financial
problems" between the US and North Korea and flexibility in the US stance.
It cannot be a coincidence that even as Rice had just about departed the region
and gotten back to Washington, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov would visit China on November 9-10.
Russian media reported that Russia's state-owned oil company Rosneft and China
National Petroleum Corp have signed a protocol to set up a joint venture called
Vostok Energy for the joint development of the oil deposits in eastern Siberia,
in refining and petrochemical production as well as paving the way for Russian
entry into China's lucrative domestic retail chain.
But far more significant has been the Russian report of a massive arms deal
between the two countries in the pipeline. The report said Russia's state
arms-export monopoly Rosoboronexport (against which the US had imposed
sanctions in August) is completing talks on the sale to China of about 50
Sukhoi-33 naval Flanker fighters worth US$2.5 billion.
The Russian report highlighted that the deal to be signed in Beijing in
December will be the second-most-expensive arms deal ever clinched by Russia.
Significantly, the Russian aircraft are meant for equipping China's first
aircraft carrier, due to be launched in 2010. It appears Beijing also plans to
design its own version of the Su-33 with the help of Russian technology. The
Russian report added, "China plans to build three aircraft carriers by 2016;
and Moscow may count on an expanded contract if Beijing has difficulty
developing its own deck planes."
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).