China To Act as Guarantor for U.S.-North Korea Deal?

4 MINS READAug 21, 2003 | 14:00 GMT
A high-ranking Chinese military delegation is in the midst of a weeklong visit to North Korea to discuss bilateral ties. At the same time, the delegation is trying to give assurances that China will guarantee Washington keeps its promise about any security assurances U.S. officials might offer for Pyongyang's shutdown of its nuclear program. The big questions are: What can China offer and, in the end, does it really matter?
Chinese Gen. Xu Caihou, a member of the Central Military Commission and of the secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, arrived in Pyongyang on Aug. 18 for a weeklong visit, seeking to reinforce the friendly military ties between the two Northeast Asian neighbors. But behind the scenes, Xu, who met with several top-ranking North Korean military and civilian leaders — including leader Kim Jong Il — also is making final preparations for the Aug. 27 multilateral meeting to end the North Korean nuclear crisis. Chief among Xu's tasks will be to convince Pyongyang that China can act as a guarantor of any nonaggression pact between the United States and North Korea as part of the resolution to the nuclear standoff. But China has few means of actually backstopping a U.S. assurance, and Beijing will be left relying on its longstanding relationship with Pyongyang to help effect a solution to the nuclear issue. For China, North Korea's insistence that there be a U.S. nonaggression pact has been a headache at the very least. Officials in Beijing know that even if the U.S. administration was interested in signing such a pact, it never would get through Congress. The Bush administration has made clear several times that it has few plans to relinquish the option of military force in dealing with North Korea. Both Beijing and Moscow have offered to back any U.S. security guarantee for North Korea — even if it simply is the United States saying it has no interest in military action in North Korea and would prefer a peaceful solution. However, it is one thing to offer — and quite another to carry through. The only way China could provide a reasonably believable guarantee on U.S. actions would be to sign a new pact with North Korea that called for immediate Chinese intervention in the event that Pyongyang was invaded by an enemy force — a mutual defense pact. But Beijing finds this an unwelcome option: It doesn't entirely trust that Washington has no intention of carrying out surgical strikes in North Korea and, further, China would not like to provide Pyongyang cover for carrying out provocative or aggressive acts of its own. Recent Chinese military reviews have questioned the desirability and even ability of China to intervene in another Korean conflict much beyond reinforcing the border along the Yalu River. Even if China were to offer a guarantee, Chinese leaders fear that the United States subsequently would accelerate its plans to refocus its military capabilities on countering China. Chinese diplomatic sources in Europe tell STRATFOR that Beijing instead hopes to sign a more ambiguous pact, one that is multilateral and doesn't hold China to a specific course of action. In essence, Beijing — like the other five parties in the six-way talks — would sign a document stating that none of the parties would stand idly by if another violated the pact. Thus, China would serve as a guarantor not only of U.S. nonaggression, but also of North Korean compliance in eliminating its nuclear program. Even this is a bit more than Beijing had hoped for, but given the limited options, China is resigned to serving as the moderator and guarantor for both sides in the standoff. China's long relationship with North Korea and the two countries' relatively close economic links will give Beijing enough leverage to keep North Korea in line, while at the same time pressure from Russia, China and South Korea will keep Washington from making any aggressive moves toward Pyongyang. But while China debates the final wording of a pact — however intentionally ambiguous — the details merely are a sideshow for the resolution that already is taking shape. Neither North Korea nor the United States is willing to go to war at this time, particularly over a crisis that both sides know is fabricated. Also, given recent movements on both sides, the general solution to the standoff will be resolved bilaterally between Washington and Pyongyang on the sidelines of the upcoming six-way talks — the other countries serving merely as witnesses and bargaining chips. In the end, Washington will make an ambiguous promise that it harbors no aggressive tendencies toward Pyongyang, so long as North Korea verifiably eliminates its nuclear program. This would lay the groundwork for the incidental, detailed discussions of just how much aid money and electricity North Korea can expect from its neighbors and their allies. Of course, four years down the road — if Pyongyang becomes isolated again — the cycle could start all over again.

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