Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert B. Zoellick, have begun to explore with Chinese leaders the economic and political future of the Korean Peninsula "because the status quo was not going to hold," Zoellick said in an interview with a small group of reporters yesterday.
China is North Korea's chief patron, supplying much of its energy, and has played an important role in prodding the reclusive communist country to return to six-nation talks about the elimination of its nuclear programs. The talks are in recess but could resume as early as next week.
Zoellick, who held nearly 20 hours of talks on a variety of issues in Beijing in early August, said it was clear the Chinese did not "want a collapsed state on their border," a concern that he suggested had hamstrung Chinese officials in pressing North Korea on its illicit weapons programs. He said that in his talks, he picked up a discussion on the Korean Peninsula's future that Rice had initiated during an earlier trip to Beijing.
"Part of what I was trying to explain to them was that the status quo was not going to hold anyway," Zoellick said. "The status quo wouldn't hold in part because we would have to take defensive countermeasures of various types" against not only Pyongyang's nuclear activities but counterfeiting and other criminal activities. "It's a criminal state," he said.
The effort by Rice and Zoellick appeared to be aimed at reducing the anxiety of the Chinese over a possible reunification of North and South Korea. The North is viewed by China as a buffer against having U.S. troops close to China's border.
Zoellick also suggested that the United States was interested in using the six-nation talks -- which also include South Korea, Russia and Japan -- as a springboard for creating a multilateral security framework for northern Asia that would mirror organizations in the southeastern part of the continent.
Zoellick said he urged the Chinese to consider scenarios for the Korean Peninsula that "would be benign to us and which would be benign to them." He said he told the Chinese that the United States had always supported reunification and emphasized that "we think it would be healthy if the North Koreans took a Chinese model of economic development."
President Bush postponed a planned visit to the White House today by Chinese President Hu Jintao to continue dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The visit has not been rescheduled, but Bush and Hu will meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week.
Zoellick said that the Chinese, preoccupied with managing internal challenges, indicated they were puzzled by the anxiety in Washington over China's economic rise.
He said he tried to explain why China's integration into the world economy had generated such concern, although yesterday he offered a relatively benign interpretation of Chinese intentions in the energy field.
Zoellick said that in a global marketplace, China cannot simply lock up energy resources, as some have feared. He said that if China obtains its oil from Venezuela, a major U.S. supplier, he did not feel the United States would be "threatened . . . because if it is an emergency situation and we had to interrupt the energy flow, would you rather interrupt it in the Caribbean or in Russia?"
He said he did not know if the Chinese deals being struck with countries the United States considers problematic were driven by individual bureaucracies seeking market openings or part of a "strategic plan."
But Zoellick said he warned the Chinese that the deals with such countries as Sudan, Burma and Iran had the prospect of backfiring, from a broader foreign policy perspective, because "what advantage do you really gain over time if you are associated with genocide and guys who are running their countries into the ground?"