China's new North Korea diplomacyNorth Korea's unexpected decision that it is prepared to return to the six-party talks caught many by surprise. Announced in Beijing after a hastily scheduled three-way meeting of China, North Korea and the United States, Pyongyang's change of heart offers signs of hope for the resumption of the process to make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.
Without question, China's role in facilitating North Korea's return to the negotiation table has been critical. In a major departure from its traditional low-profile diplomatic posture and long-held principle of non-interference in other countries' domestic affairs, Beijing swiftly joined the international community in condemning the North Korean nuclear test in the strongest terms and adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 imposing sanctions.
Beijing's diplomatic coup has won kudos from Washington. President George W Bush thanked China for encouraging Pyongyang back to the talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a recent trip to Asia that "it is an extraordinary thing for China to be now where it is". Likewise, assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill observed that "what we are doing with China today with respect to a neighbor of China is unprecedented. So perhaps in the history books Kim Jong-il will get a lot of credit for bringing the US and China closer together."
Indeed, one of the most important factors that influences China's North Korea policy is how it will affect Sino-US relations. Beijing has sought to maintain a good, stable bilateral relationship with Washington that serves China's interests. That includes US willingness to rein in any moves by Taiwan for independence. Despite their differences and disputes over a range of issues, both countries share a common interest in making the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.
However, the two countries' visions of the endgames for North Korea are different. For Beijing, the best outcome is a non-nuclear (or de-nuclearized) but surviving North Korean regime; for Washington, nuclear disarmament is the fundamental issue and to the extent that this can only be achieved by a regime change, even if with non-military means, that should be the way to go. At the minimum, punishment is critical to demonstrate to those seeking nuclear-weapons capabilities that proliferation does not pay.
Clearly, key differences in tactics remain. At times, the Chinese are frustrated with US inflexibility and suspicious of its real intentions regarding the resolution of the Korean nuclear crisis. One widely cited example is the US imposition of financial sanctions on North Korea soon after the September 19, 2005, Joint Statement was adopted.
Chinese analysts suggest that Washington is using the crisis to advance its own strategic interests in the region, including bringing Japan and South Korea in a strong bond under its alliance systems, justifying enhanced military presence and force deployments in the region, forcing China to make the difficult choices and creating unstable regional security environments to disrupt and delay China's economic process.
Since the beginning of the current nuclear crisis in October 2002, China has done its utmost to facilitate dialogue and discussion aimed at defusing the nuclear crisis and finding ways to its eventual solution.
Beijing has sought to pursue a two-pronged approach of keeping the peninsula nuclear-free without causing instability in Northeast Asia. For these reasons, China has painstakingly nurtured and promoted the six-party talks while providing energy and food to North Korea.
However, Pyongyang repaid Beijing's good offices, patience, and generous assistance with actions that have been detrimental to Chinese interests. It openly defied Beijing's advice and embarrassed China by going ahead with the missile tests in July and the nuclear test in October. Its nuclear and missile brinkmanship has alarmed Japan and provided it with the convenient justification for bolstering missile defenses, spy-satellite launches and the strengthening US-Japan security alliance, developments that China would rather not have taken place.
This has had an important impact on Beijing's North Korea policy. China had for some time resisted calls for exerting greater pressure on North Korea, including significant cutoffs of oil and food supplies. It had legitimate reasons to be cautious. Aside from its aversion to imposing sanctions as a principle, China has serious concerns over the consequences of the North Korean regime either imploding or resorting to extreme action in response to external pressure and sanctions. Military conflicts could ensue; massive refugees could swamp northeastern China; and a post-Kim North Korea could be absorbed by the South, with US military personnel deployed along the China-Korea border.
North Korea's nuclear test was more than Beijing could accept. China sought closer consultation with the other major powers and sent a special envoy to North Korea to deliver a stern message to Kim Jong-il. While continuing to emphasize diplomacy, China tightened its border controls and instructed banks to halt financial dealings with North Korea, in addition to reported suspension of oil exports to the country in September.
All these demonstrate significant efforts on China's part in seeking a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Diplomacy has played a useful role in establishing and facilitating multilateral talks over the past three years. But processes cannot substitute for substance and progress.
Now that Pyongyang has crossed the red line, Beijing is re-evaluating its policies and weighing alternative options. China's security interests counsel diplomacy, patience and balance, but they also call for new courses of action. Pyongyang's return to the six-party talks may be the first testimonial to Beijing's new North Korea diplomacy.
While Washington and Beijing have cooperated closely on the North Korean nuclear issue, it would be unrealistic to expect that China would be as cooperative on the Iranian nuclear issue. In fact China, together with Russia, has so far indicated it does not support adopting any UN Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions on Tehran for its refusal to halt its uranium-enrichment program, considering Iran a different case and pushing for diplomatic solutions instead.
Several factors likely could influence how Beijing's diplomatic script on Iran may get written. These include China's growing economic ties with Iran, especially in the energy sector, where the two countries have signed major contracts worth billions of US dollars in recent years; China's aversion to sanctions in general as a diplomatic tool; how Russia would act on the issue; the forms and extent of any UN Security Council resolutions on Iran; and its image as a responsible rising power and stakeholder in international nuclear non-proliferation.
But consideration of its relationships with both the United States and the European Union is not insignificant. However important Iranian supplies of oil are, China could ill afford alienating the US, where it has much larger stakes in market, investment and technologies. Beijing also needs Washington's cooperation in reining in the independence elements in Taiwan, as well as working out differences with Tokyo. Likewise, China needs a good and stable relationship with the EU for expanding trade, investment, and the latter's lifting of the arms ban imposed in 1989.
The pending Security Council deliberation on Iran in the coming weeks offers a unique opportunity for the international community to size up China's growing influence and its diplomatic mettle. Beijing will be making tough decisions as it contemplates balancing its energy security interests, its relationship with the United States and other Western powers, and its image as a responsible rising power and stakeholder on the global stage.
Dr Jing-dong Yuan is research director of the East Asia non-proliferation program at the Center for Non-proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he is also an associate professor of international policy studies.