China Plays Diplomat in Nuclear Dispute
By JOE McDONALD
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; 2:53 AM
BEIJING - It's a role that China doesn't want: settling other people's disputes. On Wednesday, though, Beijing became the focus of the diplomatic world as delegates from six nations took seats around a Chinese table to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff.
The dispute has given China's diplomats an unaccustomed chance to show off their skills.
Even with no settlement in sight, Beijing already had accomplished an unusual feat. It got the United States and North Korea - which have never had diplomatic relations and fought a 1950-53 war with Beijing on Pyongyang's side - to take part three times in high-level talks with no public preconditions.
China tried at first to stay out of the dispute, insisting it was for Washington and Pyongyang to settle. But it apparently got involved out of alarm at the prospect of a nuclear North Korea upsetting the region's military balance, possibly encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop their own bombs.
The first meetings a year ago involved China, the United States and the North. After Washington insisted that any settlement had to be regional, the debut round of six-nation talks were held in August with South Korea, Japan and Russia added.
"The world is watching us," declared Lee Soo-hyuck, the chief South Korean delegate, as the talks started Wednesday, with the opening ceremony shown live on Chinese state television.
The episode gives China a chance to raise its diplomatic profile and strengthen its claim to be a responsible member of a community of nuclear powers intent on keeping the bomb out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states. But it's an opportunity that Beijing struggled to avoid.
For two decades, the communist government followed the dictum laid down by former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping: Keep a low profile abroad and focus on fighting poverty at home. Chinese leaders call it their "nonaligned foreign policy of peace."
While Beijing holds one of just five permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, with veto power over U.N. actions, it rarely takes the lead in the world body and has only begun in recent years to take part in peacekeeping activity.
Chinese engineers and medics have served with U.N. contingents in Liberia, East Timor and elsewhere, but never combat forces. In January, Beijing announced its contribution to U.N. duty in Afghanistan: a lone policeman.
Official reluctance to get involved abroad has only intensified over the past year.
The new government of President Hu Jintao, who took office last March, says that after two decades of building ties abroad, it is shifting its focus to domestic issues and will concentrate for at least the next decade on alleviating poverty in the vast rural hinterland that was untouched by China's economic boom.
For that, China needs stability in its Asian neighborhood - possibly the key reason that it felt compelled to get involved in the Korean dispute, which bore all the hallmarks of a Cold War-style standoff with no link to domestic issues.
Once it got involved, though, Beijing took on the role of intermediary with gusto, casting itself as a neutral party despite its complicated relationships with both North Korea and the other four countries.
A deputy foreign minister was put in charge of the diplomatic effort. A former ambassador to Cambodia was named full-time special envoy on North Korean nuclear affairs. The Foreign Ministry says its diplomats held more than 60 meetings, traveling to Washington, Pyongyang, Moscow and other capitals.
Chinese diplomats have relentlessly prodded the participants to stick to diplomacy, appealing for flexibility and warning against unrealistic hopes for a quick solution.
"We appreciate the Chinese delegation's patient diplomatic activities," said Mitoji Yabunaka, Japan's chief delegate to the talks.
© 2004 The Associated Press