In September 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire), which settled the Russo-Japanese War. Settling an extra-hemispheric dispute between foreign powers marked the emergence of the United States, an economic and demographic dynamo, as a world power and serious actor on the international stage.
Exactly 100 years later, a statement of principles has been issued from Beijing on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. If it holds -- the "if" is very large -- it will mark China's emergence from an economic and demographic dynamo to a major actor on the world stage, and serious rival to American dominance in the Pacific.
Why is the Beijing agreement different from the worthless "Agreed Framework" Bill Clinton signed in 1994 and North Korea violated (we now know) from the very first day? That agreement was bilateral. This one is six-party, but the major player is China.
China conspicuously made itself the locus of the conference and its host. Its vice foreign minister declared that "North Korea committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to a nuclear nonproliferation treaty." If China can succeed where the United States failed miserably in solving the knottiest problem in the Pacific, China will have emerged. That means a lot for China. It has a large stake in this agreement.
Moreover, China controls 30 percent of the food and at least 70 percent of the fuel going into North Korea. That is leverage. The question is why China has decided to use it now.
Until now China had been content to allow North Korea to putter along with its threats, bluster, promises and violations. This served a useful purpose for China in that it was a distraction to the United States, a thorn in its side. Nor were the Chinese in a particular mood to jeopardize the stability of a useful client state.
If this new agreement bears fruit, it will be because China has recalculated its interests, by first deciding that if these negotiations go nowhere and North Korea remains nuclear, it is only a matter of time before Japan goes nuclear, too. A nuclear Japan is China's ultimate nightmare.
Second, the usefulness of North Korea as a thorn in the side of the United States may have diminished. America has thorns aplenty, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Palestine to Venezuela, to say nothing of its Katrina-related domestic problems.
Third and perhaps most important, this was less a crisis than an opportunity. China has spent the past decade trying to translate its economic power into geopolitical power to make itself the arbiter of Asian affairs. It has established several regional organizations with Asian neighbors (ASEAN Plus Three, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, East Asian Summit) that pointedly exclude the United States. Its major ambition is to displace America as the major Pacific power. At which point, specific and smaller objectives, such as the absorption of Taiwan and the extension of oil rights to waters claimed by weaker neighbors, become infinitely more possible.
By succeeding at denuclearizing Pyongyang, China can demonstrate that the road to getting things done in Asia runs through Beijing. It will have shown its neighbors that the future lies in association with China, with or without the United States.
For this to happen, however, the declaration of principles has to translate into actual dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program. The declaration itself is problematic. It leaves ambiguous the fate of the uranium enrichment program, which North Korea admitted to in 2002 and now claims does not exist.
Success is also contingent on the North Koreans agreeing to postpone, at U.S. insistence, talks about a new light-water nuclear reactor until after it has dismantled its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities. Yet, within a day after the declaration of principles, Pyongyang issued a statement directly contradicting this and saying that nothing will occur unless it gets the light-water reactors right away.
China is the only country that can force North Korea to give way. China will do so if it decides that this is its Portsmouth moment. That would be a blessing, but not unalloyed. It would solve the most acute and dangerous problem in the Pacific -- nuclear weapons in the hands of the half-mad Caligula that is Kim Jong Il -- at the warranted but still significant cost of seeing our principal rival in the Pacific rise from its slumber.