- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

Communist China’s official pronouncements are notoriously inscrutable. But in both words and actions, China would appear not to be serious about containing North Korean nuclear ambitions, at least not in the way the United States and its allies are. The latest indication is that China apparently wants sanctions off the table in nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. At a time when North Korea is ratcheting up provocations on the nuclear issue and is threatening a nuclear test, China is moving to throw out the most likely tactic to make its reclusive neighbor take the six-party talks seriously. That risks a nuclearized Asia, in which either Japan or South Korea may well feel compelled to build their own arsenal.

“The normal trade flow should not be linked up with the nuclear issue,” Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, announced Tuesday. “We oppose trying to address the problem through strong-arm tactics.” The use of the term “strong-arm tactics” is telling, since “strong-arm tactics” are about the only thing the United States and its partners in the six-party talks haven’t tried.

China has been mostly transparent in its foot-dragging on the six-party talks and on North Korean nukes generally. In fact, it seems content to play both sides as fully as possible, and lately has been leaning to the side of North Korea, quietly shoring up Pyongyang. In recent months, the New York Times reported, aid to North Korea has risen substantially. The World Food Program believes China sent almost as much food aid to North Korea in the first three months of this year as it did in all of 2004. Meanwhile, China has been enjoying a limited reputation in diplomatic circles as credibly pragmatic for its role in arranging the now-stalled six-party talks.

For its part, North Korea has been adept at managing perceptions and seems to squirm its way out of the diplomatic problems it deserves. Its dramatic gestures over the last few weeks are part of that effort, as are its repeated declarations that it considers sanctions a declaration of war. North Korea’s apparent May 1 test of a short-range missile fired from its east coast to 65 miles into the Sea of Japan was another signal to remind the United States, Japan and China of the worst scenarios.

China seems dangerously oblivious to the possibility of a nuclearized Asia. The best-case explanation for its no-sanctions pledge is that hidden internal factors required China to make a public gesture in favor of North Korea as it privately urges Pyongyang to negotiate. Barring that possibility, China appears to have succumbed to its own cynicism about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. This should serve to cast further doubt on the efficacy of the six-party talks.

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