- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

BEIJING. — The young Chinese woman gawking across the river into North Korea turned to me with a look of dawning comprehension. “You know,’ she said, “I think I understand why you foreigners are so puzzled by China. I suppose it’s like this: What North Korea is to us, we are to you.’

She continued to stare. In the fields, blue-clad Korean workers harvested hay by hand, under the gaze of a couple of soldiers carrying rifles. Another soldier had come to the river bank 100 yards away, where he appeared to be gesturing at another group of Chinese onlookers.

“Tourists come here just to look at the North Koreans,’ the woman explained. “They throw across money and cigarettes as tips.’ She laughed. “It’s like feeding the monkeys in Sichuan.’

This exchange took place near the border city of Dandong, in Northeast China. There, on Monday, reporters spotted the first evidence of how the sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear test last week will work. Chinese border guards opened the backs of trucks, and poked around among the bags found there, without opening them. Then they closed the doors and sent the trucks on their way.

And that says all you need to know about the current attitudes in China toward North Korea. Puzzlement at its refusal to reform; contempt; distrust; and an inability — at the moment, at least — to do anything decisive at all.

American eyes are now on China, because of this very border, which they regard as key to the success of sanctions in ending Kim Jong-il’s nuclear ambitions. They wonder how honest Chinese commitments to implement them are.

At first, the Chinese called the test “hanran,’ or brazen, a term reserved for the worst sorts of capitalist imperialism, and I think they were being sincere.

But there is more to diplomacy than the initial response. More indicative has been the extraordinary wriggling this last week of poor Wang Guangya, China’s gentle-natured, British-educated ambassador to the United Nations, as he performed more convolutions than, well, a Sichuanese monkey performing tricks.

First he voted for sanctions. Then, presumably under instruction, he said China did not approve of the sanctions, and would not take part in the inspections of cargo for which he had just voted. Even for China, that seemed a bit odd, so on Monday night, we got the (so far) definitive version: China approves of inspections, but not of “interceptions’, still less “interdictions.” In other words, like the guards at the border, you can look, but you can’t touch.

Some may say this is Chinese diplomatic inscrutability. But to me, it is worse, and more dangerous: This is the full writhing of a government that does not know what to do. As a result, its frontman must make the same despairing interpretations of the Delphic utterances of the Politburo Standing Committee that the rest of us usually have to.

How could China have got to this, so humiliated by the refusal of its ally to consult it, let alone do as it is asked? America says it is not in China’s interest to allow a nuclear-armed, unstable North Korea, and that would seem obvious. What if Japan were to go nuclear in response? Or South Korea? Or, God forbid, Taiwan?

But if there is one thing the Politburo does not like, it is to have America telling it what China’s interests are. For every economist who says China’s rise would be nothing without Wal-Mart to buy all the cheap gadgets it makes, there is a general who says anything that reduces America’s freedom to act in the Pacific is a good thing, even a nuclear Kim.

The Chinese are right about one thing. Too often, they say, America sees its strategic interests as inevitably coinciding with those of other sensible, peace-loving nations, a view that obviates diplomacy, something most other countries occasionally feel to be necessary.

However, this raises the question of what China’s interests are. Look at my Chinese friend’s words again. “What North Korea is to us, we are to you,’ she said, very accurately describing the incomplete nature of China’s extraordinary current transition. It is no longer as it was under Mao Tse-tung. But nor is it exactly normal, and China is changing so fast no one now can say, should “normal’ ever materialize, what it will look like.

In 20 years’ time, will China be a militarily strong but still poor and prickly nation, eager to find a way to distract its masses from the injustices to which its crony communo-capitalism has given birth? Will it be newly confident, prosperous, freer, happy to look the West in the eye? Or, perhaps, will it be so confident it will decide it doesn’t need to listen to America, ever again?

On this, your guess is as good as mine, and mine, frankly, is as good as the Politburo’s. Yet this is the timetable, and these the very criteria that determine what China’s strategic interests are today.

And that is why America will find it hard to decide how far to trust China: It doesn’t know itself.

Richard Spencer is the China correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London.

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