China gambles backing North Korea
China’s reluctance to support international efforts to censure its communist ally North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean warship is taking a toll on its reputation on the world stage, according to former U.S. officials and analysts.
Wary of instability on the Korean Peninsula and a disruption of its vital imports of natural resources from North Korea, Beijing has doggedly pursued a policy of supporting Pyongyang’s actions, regardless of the consequences.
The North’s actions directly affected China on Friday, when North Korean border guards shot four Chinese nationals suspected of crossing the Chinese border. Three of the Chinese were killed and one was injured.
Beijing was quick to reprimand North Korea. “The Chinese government attached great importance to the incident and made quick and serious representations to DPRK in the aftermath of the attack,” said Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Victor Cha, director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, said the border shooting makes things personal for the Chinese. “Nobody likes to see their nationals shot,” he said.
China’s response to the shooting contrasts sharply to its reaction to the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, which claimed the lives of 46 South Korean sailors.
Thomas Christensen, a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Bush administration, said at a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Tuesday that China’s “inability or unwillingness to take stronger and more effective measures to change that behavior by DPRK has served to undercut a lot of China’s foreign policy strategy … there is a very high cost for China in what DPRK is doing.”
Some see a closer relationship between China and North Korea since the sinking of the Cheonan.
China hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in May before the release of the Cheonan report. In their meetings, the Chinese and North Korean delegations reportedly had detailed discussions of the Cheonan incident.
John Tkacik, a retired U.S. diplomat and former China analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said he is certain China assured Mr. Kim that “no matter what happens, they are on his side.”
“What you are seeing now is the fruit of a very elaborate discussion between the Chinese and North Koreans on future security in Northeast Asia,” he said.
Russia, meanwhile, is conducting an independent investigation into the sinking of the South Korean warship.
Randall Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, said it is possible the Chinese may find the Russian investigation “more palatable.”
But he added: “The Chinese have already made some pronouncements that they will find it hard to walk back from … they have said Kim Jong-il was not responsible. At the end of the day, they want to work with Kim Jong-il and not sow the seeds for greater instability on the peninsula.”
The Chinese are worried that a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could send countless refugees streaming over the North Korean border into China.
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