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Doubting US, China Is Wary of Korea Role
Special Contribution
By Howard W. French
Wang Jiarui (right), minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, receives a foreign guest. He is flying to North Korea to persuade Pyongyang to resume stalled six-nation talks.

SHANGHAI, China Feb. 18, 2005 — The dispatch by China of a high-level envoy this weekend to persuade the North Koreans to return to talks on their nuclear weapons would seem to present it with an ideal opportunity.

China's economy is growing enormously, casting shadows in every direction. Its fast-modernizing military has the attention of every power, regional or global. No other country, meanwhile, enjoys the kind of long, unbroken friendship that China has nurtured for over five decades with North Korea. In short, all the pieces would seem to be in place for Beijing to score its first big coup in global diplomacy, brokering an end to the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula.

The only problem with this optimistic scenario is that it is shared by almost no one in China.

For now, the Chinese remain reluctant to take major diplomatic risks on North Korea, convinced that this longtime ally, a country that Chinese soldiers shed blood in large numbers to defend, will never turn against them. Analysts say that Beijing's top priority is to maintain quiet on its frontier, and that it would take a more aggressive tack only if tensions between Washington and North Korea were to increase seriously.

Beyond such doubts, however, lingers an even more fundamental reason for the reluctance of China to take the lead in this crisis: its deep-seated skepticism about the United States' strategic designs in the region.

"If we cut off aid and the Koreas are unified on South Korean terms, that would be a big disaster for China," one analyst said. "The U.S. would insist on basing its troops in the northern part of the peninsula, and China would have to consider that all of its efforts going back to the Korean War have been a waste."

Other experts here look cynically on Washington's insistence on Chinese leadership in the North Korean face-off, seeing it as part of a broader effort by the United States to entangle Beijing in a growing web of international arrangements, the better to limit Chinese influence.

A fresh example of the divisions between the United States and China was provided this week with confirmation that Tokyo is moving closer to Washington's policy position that the status quo on Taiwan must be maintained. Chinese analysts often point out that having a friendly country tying up American troops on its northern border frees Beijing to focus its forces on other contingencies, notably the Taiwan question.

Meanwhile, most Chinese international security experts insist that the United States holds the two most important keys to resolving the North Korean problem: ending a state of hostility that dates from the earliest days of the cold war and providing tangible assurances to North Korea that Washington does not seek the government's overthrow.

"Although many of our friends see it as a failing state, potentially one with nuclear weapons, China has a different view," said Piao Jianyi, an expert in international relations at the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies in Beijing. "North Korea has a reforming economy that is very weak, but every year is getting better, and the regime is taking measures to reform its economy, so perhaps the U.S. should reconsider its approach."

This widely held picture of a slowly, painfully reforming North Korea suggests a broad sympathy for North Korea among Chinese intellectuals and policy makers. For many, North Korea's experience echoes China's fitful reforms of a generation ago. "In the late 1960's, China also had a lack of transparency," Mr. Piao added. "It was also threatening to other countries and, as Westerners would say, it was an oppressive country. But one threatens others because one feels threatened, and in that perspective, you can better understand North Korea."

Many experts in Chinese affairs say the main emphasis of the country's foreign policy remains avoiding turbulence wherever possible in international relations, the better to realize its economic ambitions. "As far as the Chinese are concerned, the bottom line is stability," said Robert Sutter, a former national intelligence officer for East Asia, and author of the coming book "China's Rise in Asia." "They've been really concerned about the danger of war in Korea, and that is why they got busy behind the six-party talks, not because they wanted to be seen as any great Asian player. Still, putting a lot of pressure on North Korea would be hard for them, and I don't think they want to take those risks."

But if caution remains the cornerstone of China's policy toward North Korea, Beijing wants to keep up at least the appearance of being a responsible power and attentive to regional problems. Moreover, some voices here have begun to insist that traditional diplomatic approaches no longer meet its current interests.

The nuclear situation on the Korean peninsula is unlike anything China has faced before, said Zhang Liangui, a foreign affairs expert at the Central Party School, in Beijing. The new development "might lead to nuclear competition in northeast Asia, which is the most important region in the world for China," he said, adding, "We must treat this with the greatest seriousness."

Other Chinese experts go further. Shen Dingli, vice president of the International Relations Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai, said China's priorities in the international face-off were clear: keeping North Korea from collapsing, and keeping American troops south of the 38th parallel, the line that divides the two Koreas. But he complained of Chinese timidity in limiting itself to a host's role for the talks.

"China still does not have a mentality for leading the world, and has no reflexes for pushing the U.S. and North Korea to do something," Mr. Shen said. "This crisis is a reminder that we must raise the level of our diplomacy quite a bit still. If China is not wary of the old passive approach to the world and doesn't learn how to be more pushy, we will only have ourselves to blame."

North Korea Sets Talk Conditions

SEOUL, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 19 (Reuters) - North Korea will return to talks about its nuclear weapons program if the United States pledges "coexistence and noninterference," the North's envoy to the United Nations told a South Korean newspaper in an article published Saturday.

The envoy, Deputy Ambassador Han Song Ryol, also told the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo that the North wanted an assurance by the United States that there would be substantive results from negotiations before it returned to talks.

The above article is from NYT.

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