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MONTEREY, Calif. — The looming crisis on the Korean Peninsula poses a major test for Chinese diplomacy. As the United States and North Korea head toward a possible nuclear confrontation, China is positioned to play a crucial role in defusing the crisis. To do so, Beijing must abandon its traditional passive posture in favor of a more active role. Korea could be the crucible that reveals whether China’s self-proclaimed status as a responsible great power is real.

In the past, Beijing has kept a low profile on Korean security issues and attempted to exercise its influence quietly. China’s cautious efforts to preserve the security status quo and maintain stability have placed it in a passive and reactive diplomatic posture.

China’s response to the current crisis reflects this pattern. Chinese Foreign Ministry statements have called for supporting a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability, solving the problem through dialogue and preserving the 1994 Agreed Framework. These statements have highlighted the gravity of the situation, but do little to point the way toward a solution.

As Washington and Pyongyang continue on their collision course, both sides appear determined not to be the one to back down first. North Korea’s admission of a covert nuclear weapons program and the Bush administration’s suspension of fuel-oil deliveries have probably destroyed the political basis for the Agreed Framework. China could play a key role in providing both sides with a graceful diplomatic exit to the current crisis, while laying the foundations for a longer-term resolution of the nuclear issue. Efforts to return to North Korean nuclear ambiguity are unlikely to maintain stability for long.

There are several reasons why Beijing should be more active. China’s substantive concerns are defined mainly in terms of outcomes that should be avoided. The worst scenario is a nuclear domino effect where an overtly nuclear-armed North Korea forces Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan to go nuclear. This would profoundly reshape the security environment in Northeast Asia and prompt the U.S. to accelerate deployment of ballistic missile defenses.

From China’s perspective, a North Korean collapse would be almost as bad. South Korea might inherit the North’s nuclear arsenal, and U.S. forces based in a reunified Korea could have direct access to China’s border. China would have little ability to influence future security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula, and would have to deal with the economic burden of refugees fleeing a collapsing North Korean regime.

China also worries that the U.S. might use force to try to resolve the nuclear crisis. A war on the Korean Peninsula would have major negative strategic, economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences for China, even if weapons of mass destruction were not used. China has strong incentives to try to avoid these worst-case scenarios.

Beijing also has procedural concerns about how the crisis is managed. These include a strong preference for a peaceful outcome, avoiding a unilateral U.S. use of force without U.N. Security Council authorization and having a voice in future security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula.

Advancing these interests will require diplomatic acumen and a willingness to make hard choices. China has historically been the least active of the permanent Security Council members in tackling international security issues, with a tendency to abstain on critical votes. It has sought to maintain balanced relations with both North and South Korea. But if Beijing wants to prove its credentials as a responsible great power, more will be required.

One way Beijing could help is by using its influence to persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear activities. China can convey the seriousness with which not only the U.S. but also South Korea, Japan and Russia view North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. China should relay the message that possession of nuclear weapons will preclude the positive economic and political relationship with the U.S. that North Korea says it wants. Beijing can also credibly play the role of an honest broker in conveying North Korea’s legitimate concerns to the U.S. This will be especially important if the Bush administration persists in refusing to deal directly with the North.

Given China’s stake in a peaceful resolution, Beijing might need to be more direct in warning North Korea that its actions threaten fundamental Chinese interests. Continued intransigence could force Beijing to reconsider its policy of providing economic assistance to help keep the North Korean regime afloat, including most of North Korea’s fuel imports and a significant portion of its food supplies. Threatening to cut off this aid would be risky, but might be the only way to head off even worse consequences.

China might propose a multilateral initiative to address North Korea’s stated reason for reactivating the Yongbyon reactor — the need to generate electricity in response to the suspension of heavy fuel oil deliveries. China could also call for revitalization of the regional consultative process for addressing long-term security issues on the Peninsula, including measures such as security assurances, a possible nuclear weapons-free zone and a new regional security framework. Although these measures are unlikely to resolve the crisis, they could provide a face-saving exit for Pyongyang.

Beijing’s helpfulness in finding a way out of the nuclear impasse could help consolidate a fragile U.S.-Chinese bilateral relationship that has gradually been rebuilt in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Successful resolution of the crisis could also reinforce the international nonproliferation regime, China’s preferred method of dealing with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction

Despite these arguments for a more active Chinese role, it remains to be seen what Beijing will do. China played a positive role in defusing the 1993-94 nuclear crisis by working behind the scenes. However, this time Beijing’s sought-after role as a responsible great power may require China to get its hands dirty.

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