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China’s Call for Six Party Talks: Cynical or Naïve?

by Scott A. Snyder
November 29, 2010

China’s response to North Korea’s artillery shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island last week has been relatively rapid compared to the slowness of its response to the sinking last March (it took three weeks for the Chinese government to express its condolences in response to the sinking of the Cheonan). But, as underscored in Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review and Aidan-Foster Carter’s article in Foreign Policy, it is unlikely to satisfy American expectations. China’s proposal of an emergency session of the six parties is a non-starter that confuses form versus substance. Resumption of Six Party Talks would be a way of affirming what President Obama called last June China’s “willful blindness” toward North Korea by perpetuating the illusion that diplomatic efforts to deal with North Korea have not failed.

As a practical matter, there are four preconditions for Six Party Talks to be viable as a framework for addressing current issues on the agenda. First, as the United States and South Korea have emphasized, it is necessary for North Korea to show tangible steps as evidence of its willingness to return to the path of denuclearization. This is a main purpose of the talks, but there is no basis for resuming talks unless all parties affirm their commitment to the denuclearization objective. Absent that commitment, a call for five-party talks would be the next best option.

Second, Six Party Talks have little prospect for success in the absence of a stabilized inter-Korean relationship, but this will be difficult to achieve especially following the Yeonpyeong shelling. Third, Six Party talks cannot succeed in the absence of a U.S.-DPRK channel for dialogue. North Korea has systematically placed obstacles in the way of such a dialogue since the Obama administration has come into office; revelations to American visitors regarding Pyongyang’s progress in developing an enriched uranium capability were a step in exactly the wrong direction. Fourth, there must be evidence that China can effectively persuade North Korea not only to cease provocations but to integrate with the international community, but there has been precious little evidence of China’s persuasiveness since Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pyongyang in October of 2009.

China faces an even more difficult challenge in managing its diplomacy toward the two Koreas following the Yeonpyeong incident, especially given the damage North Korea has done to China’s own national security interests. The Chinese foreign ministry objected to U.S.-ROK exercises involving the USS George Washington in its exclusive economic zone but could do nothing to prevent them from going forward. Lee Myung-Bak requested in a meeting with State Councillor Dai Bingguo that China take a “fairer and more responsible position” in dealing with the two Koreas, and China and North Korea are set to exchange high-level visits this week. A first step toward creating the conditions for resumption of Six Party Talks would be evidence that China can persuade North Korea to take concrete actions to restore the basis for Six Party talks. Otherwise, China’s call for a return to Six Party Talks will stand as a symbol of China’s own diplomatic limitations rather than as a serious effort to tamp down tensions on the Korean peninsula.

(Photo Courtesy Ho New/Reuters)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    S/M…….I think China has a problem in controlling it’s economy.
    To fall out with the US and their Allies is to possibly affect the flow of exports.
    If,for any reason,the Yellow and China Seas shipping lanes are disrupted,China’s massive exports would be disrupted and also the exploration for oil.
    China and the DPRK are quite limited in their blue water naval capabilities

  • Posted by pivot

    Denuclearization on Korean peninsular is in China’s national interest, but I guess it is not on top concern of Communist Party of China. In the democratic countries, the action of the elected government must comply with the national interest. In authoritarian countries, the ruling class/party’s top concern is to ensure the survival and sustainability of the regime. China has been surrounded by nuclear powers: Russian, India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenal; Japan may be capable of producing one at the necessary time given its technology might; Burma, Vietnam, Taiwan have or will have nuclear reactors, it is for civil use right now, but there is no guarantee they won’t pursue military usage of it in the long run. If the CPC really act in accordance with China’s national interests, it should have behaved more actively than the US to stop the nuclearization of both Iran and North Korea. The reality shows different picture though.
    I am guessing that what truely concerns China is the sustainability of Kim dynasty. Based on similar ideology, similar political structure, similar history, the collapse of NK is undoubtedly an ominous sign for the future of the CPC’s rule. To certain extent, the NK’s fate and CPC’s fate are tight together. This is one reason among the many, I think, that could explain why the political correctness inside China is always protecting North Korea. It may be too naive to put too much hope on China to pressure NK to drop its nuclearization plan.
    I see some argument that the millions of refugees will become China’s headache if NK collapsed. I think that is over exaggerating. If NK collapses from inside, the Kim dynasty will definitely ask help from China, and China could have the time, combining with its financial ability, to alleviate the potential humanitarian burden. If NK collapses due to military action from the south, then China could step in NK from north to set up a new buffer zone, just enough to accommodate millions of refugees if China doesn’t want to be too confrontational.

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