Regional summit to test China’s Wen over North Korea

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (BestGrowthStock) – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao flies into a regional storm over North Korea this week, when neighbors’ disquiet over China’s reluctance to press Pyongyang could fracture what was cast as a show of northeast Asian unity.

Wen, who has the demeanor of a mild school master, has been the friendliest face of China’s effort to convince wary South Korea and Japan that Beijing is no threat and wants to act only as a benign regional adhesive, promoting trade and cooperation.

But with Seoul and Tokyo convinced that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, China’s attempts to balance those ties with its traditional support of Pyongyang will be at issue during a three-nation regional summit on the South Korean resort island of Jeju at the weekend.

“This is a huge test for Premier Wen and also a huge headache for China,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University who specializes on Asian security.

“He needs to somehow find a public way of placating South Korea and of warning North Korea,” said Zhu.

“But if China publicly sides with South Korea, the United States and Japan over the Cheonan, that would amount to totally abandoning North Korea, and China does not want to go that far.”

China has so far tried to balance between North and South Korea by keeping publicly agnostic about the cause of the ship sinking in March that killed 46 sailors, and urging restraint from all. It did so again on Wednesday.

Chinese experts said the government believed it could upset the brittle stability on the Korean peninsula by overtly taking sides and dash any hopes of Pyongyang abandoning nuclear weapons.

In the eyes of many in South Korea and Japan, however, that muted approach amounts to be protecting Pyongyang, and that threatens to corrode China’s efforts to draw closer to those two big trade partners.

“This is already having an impact (on China) in the region,” said Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, a prominent training school for officials in Beijing.

PRESSURE

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama are likely to press China on the issue when they gather.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano this week said Tokyo backed Seoul’s decision to take Pyongyang to the U.N. Security Council over the sinking.

“And if that takes place, we would like to play a role, if given the chance, in getting China to recognize that it is in the same situation,” he added.

North Korea said on Tuesday it was cutting all ties with South Korea, making China’s diplomatic dilemma sharper. A day later in Seoul, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that it was in the interests of China to persuade North Korea to change its ways.

“The dilemma faced by Beijing is that provocative acts by the DPRK put pressure on China’s strategic objective of separating its relations with North and South Korea,” Victor Cha, an expert on the region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., wrote in a commentary on the ship sinking that was published by the think-tank on Tuesday.

The DPRK, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is another name for North Korea.

“While most understand China’s dilemma, many see Beijing’s ‘muddle through’ strategy as a disappointing symbol of its inability to play a leadership role in East Asia commensurate with its rise,” added Cha, who dealt with North Korea as a National Security Council official under President George W. Bush.

BUSINESS BOWS TO SECURITY FEARS

Wen will use his week-long Asia trip from May 28, spanning South Korea, Japan, Mongolia and Myanmar, to promote economic cooperation, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun told a briefing on Wednesday.

China’s double-digit growth, pushing it close to overtaking Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy, is a big reason for both South Korea and Japan to seek smoother ties with Beijing. China is now the biggest trade partner for both, Zhang noted.

By comparison, North Korea ranked 64th among export markets for Chinese goods, behind Peru and Egypt in 2008, and was ranked 70th as a source of imports to China, behind Gabon and Yemen.

But in dealing with Pyongyang, Beijing’s usual focus on doing business gives way to security imperatives: shoring up this poor and isolated state that depends on China for much of its oil, food and daily goods. (For more on ties see)

China shares a 1,416-km (880-mile) border with North Korea, and Beijing worries that a breakdown of power in its neighbor could unleash dangerous regional tensions and a surge of refugees into northeast China.

Beijing’s focus on strengthening ties with Pyongyang was underscored earlier this month when it hosted Kim Jong-il, the secretive North Korean leader, whose frailty from aging and illness was clear in television footage from the visit.

Since 2003, China has sought to defuse confrontation over North Korea by hosting six-party nuclear disarmament talks also including South Korea, Japan, the United States and Russia.

Those intermittent talks have also become a diplomatic trophy for China, displaying its emergence as a regional broker. But now with the talks stalled for over a year and China’s ties with North Korea under pressure, that trophy looks tarnished.

“I’m afraid that the six-party talks now look like they have no future, and what comes next will be another big test for Chinese diplomacy,” said Zhu, the Peking University professor.

Investment Advice

(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

Regional summit to test China’s Wen over North Korea