Whispers That May Wake the Dragons
Op-Ed, New York Times
August 6, 2004
Author: Xiaohui (Anne) Wu, Former Associate, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, 2007–2010; Former Research Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom, 2004–2007
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The negotiations to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula are a delicate business, made even more so with the tectonic shifts in Asian geopolitics. As facilitator in the often rocky negotiations that also include North and South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States, China appears to be taking a decisive — if typically understated — diplomatic initiative in smoothing communications between North Korea and the United States.
But what message is China whispering to North Korea? With the six party talks scheduled to resume in September, both those eager for China to exert its influence and those suspicious of that influence would dearly like to know. China now has an opportunity to take advantage of the cautious equilibrium between Washington and Pyongyang and advance the cause of nuclear nonproliferation on the Korean peninsula.
There are still significant divisions between the United States, which is pressing for the verifiable and irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and North Korea, which has not yet even admitted it has an uranium enrichment program. The two sides also disagree on inspections and on the exact sequence of disarmament and assistance.
It is certainly in China's interest that North Korea put an end to its nuclear weapons program. Increasingly pragmatic, Beijing now focuses its foreign policy on creating a secure regional and international environment that will foster economic growth. That goal would be seriously undermined if North Korea were to remain nuclear. Accompanied by a regional arms race, a disruption of the region's nuclear balance could leave China surrounded by nuclear powers — Russia, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan. In this context, the traditional "lips to teeth" relationship that envisioned using North Korea as a buffer against the United States appears both obsolete and self-destructive.
China enjoys a unique position in the negotiations: it alone can express a full and sincere understanding of North Korea's security concerns and can work to obtain a better deal for Pyongyang. Eager to avoid any turbulence in the Korean peninsula, China will press to establish a tone based on reconciliation, process and reciprocity.
This is both healthy and, more important, potentially more productive than North Korea's hard-nosed style or America's hard-line tactics. The six-party talks have shown that more confrontational approaches are ineffectual at best, and at times threaten to increase tension between the parties. Emphasizing the "words for words" and "action for action" solution, China has tried to establish a clear, step-by-step itinerary, an itinerary that affords equal import to ending North Korea's nuclear activities and satisfying North Korea's economic and security needs.
China's actions also show a guarded but unmistakable change of attitude. Especially in comparison to 50 years ago, China no longer feels obligated to be Pyongyang's "big brother" and no longer provides unqualified support to North Korea. In other words, North Korea will have to learn to behave.
The friendship treaty between China and Noth Korea signed in 1961 now seems a burden to China. It's hard to imagine that China would ever intervene directly in the event of a crisis on the Korean peninsula, as the treaty calls for. China's diplomatic philosophy has changed considerably. Beijing is no longer interested in "exporting revolution."
Rather, the Chinese leadership is orienting its foreign policy to serve domestic needs. Having substantially improved its relations with the United States, China is now extremely reluctant to compromise this relationship. This explains in part China's visible efforts to downplay the 1961 treaty — efforts that contrast with North Korea's attempts to emphasize the pact's importance. Beijing clearly wants to avoid emboldening North Korea with any fantasy about China's security clout.
The message has not yet been received in North Korea, which still behaves at times like a stubborn boy. Many in the region hope that China, like a dutiful big brother, will shepherd North Korea back into the fold of peaceful nations, instead of letting it wander around with weapons of mass destruction in hand. China is likely to make its demands not in a shout but in a whisper: do not go away again. Come home and enjoy the comforts we can provide. Why go on drifting, hungry, lonely and desperate?
For its part, North Korea is waiting for the emerging Chinese leadership to reveal exactly how it intends to use its influence. And both "brothers" are following with great interest the presidential campaign in the United States. While North Korea and the United States may want to defer serious negotiations until after the American presidential election, China is sure to press North Korea to reach an agreement sooner rather than later.
Guessing what Beijing may whisper into the ear of Washington, meanwhile, is more difficult. For the United States, the message is likely to be more proverbial — a word of caution, perhaps, a reminder of the uncertain aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq: beware of seeking out dragons and destroying them. You may cause more dragons to emerge.
Anne Wu, a former official in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
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