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.
Seong-Ho Sheen, an assistant professor of international relations at Seoul National University, said at the CSIS panel that the Chinese response to the Cheonan incident had shown that China wants to maintain stability no matter what the cost. "They still see North Korea as a strategic asset rather than as a strategic liability," he said.
South Korea has sought a U.N. censure of North Korea over the sinking of its ship, but its vice foreign minister, Chun Yung-Woo, told Yonhap news agency this week that his country was not seeking sanctions.
Mr. Schriver predicts the international community will have trouble bringing China around to take stronger action against North Korea or endorse the findings of the international report, which "they still openly question."
Mr. Tkacik agreed it would be impossible to isolate China at the U.N. Security Council as China has "ingratiated itself to most of the members of the council who look for Chinese investment."
Speaking at CSIS, Mr. Cha said Russia's role in the coming days and weeks will be crucial. "Where they come out on this investigation will say very much whether China will be isolated on the [Security Council] in terms of a resolution," he said.
At the same discussion, John Park, director of the Korea working group at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the best thing China could do at the Security Council is to abstain. He predicted the Security Council would cobble together a nonbinding resolution that would call on all parties to commit to the armistice between North and South Korea, pursue efforts to boost maritime security and seek recognition of the disputed zone between the two neighbors.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tkacik said the U.S. had been wholly unsuccessful in its effort to get China on its side.
"Nothing the U.S. wants China to do has ever gotten done. When you inventory the list of American foreign policy priorities around the globe... you find that China is invariably on the other side of the issue from us," he said. "To say that the United States has been successful in bringing China into the world community as a responsible stakeholder is an exercise in self-delusion."
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