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China diplomacy hinging on 'Korea option'

By CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Hu and Koizumi
Analysts say Hu should set aside rows with Japan over war atrocities and focus on economic ties.

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HONG KONG, China -- President Hu Jintao needs new ways of thinking on diplomacy to boost ties with the U.S. and Japan -- and to establish China as a respectable member of the international community.

Through hobnobbing with global leaders the past week on his maiden overseas trip as head of state, the Fourth Generation Chinese leader has gone some way toward imposing his personal stamp on the world stage.

While being surprisingly good at public relations and symbolism, however, the 60-year-old supremo has to display as much talent in innovative solutions to problems such as North Korea.

The neophyte diplomat was able to build some form of personal rapport with President George W. Bush in their hour long "mini-summit" on the fringes of the Group of Eight meeting last Sunday in Evian, France.

On the key question of Pyongyang's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Xinhua news agency reported that both leaders agreed to "support the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to peacefully solve problems through dialogue."

What the official newswire did not mention, however, was that the U.S. side was getting increasingly impatient with foot-dragging by Pyongyang -- and that Bush hoped Beijing would exert more pressure on the Kim Jong-Il regime.

"The Americans think the Chinese have more effective cards they can play against Pyongyang -- and Washington is frustrated that the Hu team has yet to crack the whip on their client state," said a Western diplomat knowledgeable about Sino-U.S. deliberations on North Korea.

Beijing infuriated

Liberal members of Beijing's foreign-policy think tanks do not dispute the fact the Hu administration has good reasons to bite the bullet on the Kim regime.

According to a Chinese source close to the diplomatic establishment, the Hu leadership was infuriated when the North Koreans admitted during a meeting with U.S. officials in Beijing in April that they already possessed sizeable nuclear capacity.

"Beijing has repeatedly told Pyongyang that China's help to North Korea is conditional upon its not developing nuclear bombs," he said.

The source said in response to Beijing's angry words, Kim's aides asserted that the Iraq experience showed unless Pyongyang had effective means of deterrence, the U.S. would launch unilateral military attacks against North Korea.

Kim also told Beijing he would scale back its nuclear program only if Washington would sign a non-aggression pact with Pyongyang.

Chinese cadres have privately complained, however, that Pyongyang had at the same time tried to "drag China into the water" by moving some of its WMD-manufacturing facilities closer to the North Korean-Chinese border.

Moreover, Kim aides have indirectly intimidated Beijing by hinting at the millions of refugees that will flood the Chinese northeast if the Pyongyang regime were to collapse.

Valuable buffer

China is also considering whether to join the Group of Eight nations
China is also considering whether to join the Group of Eight nations

The Hu leadership, however, is reluctant to play hardball with North Korea -- which is dependent on Chinese food, oil and military technology -- because of historical factors as well as old ways of thinking.

For example, conservative elements in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and diplomatic community have told Hu and ex-president Jiang Zemin that because North Korea serves as a valuable buffer against the U.S., Japan and South Korea, Beijing should honor Pyongyang's requests for more defensive weapons.

A group of hardliners even suggested that Beijing send ethnic-Korean PLA experts to North Korea so that the two countries' enhanced military ties would go undetected by the West.

More liberal advisers to Hu, however, have argued it is time Beijing ended the "lips-and-teeth relationship" with Pyongyang -- and worked closely together with the global community in squeezing the rogue regime.

While weighing ways to defuse the North Korean powder keg, Hu may also consider the bonanza of good will that can be won from Japan and South Korea if China were to rightfully fulfil its global obligations of penalizing regimes with WMD.

Historical question

Another area where original thinking is called for is China's strained ties with Japan, which were manifested in the correct but stiff meeting between Hu and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in St Petersburg last weekend.

Xinhua quoted Hu as urging Koizumi to "carefully handle the historical question [of World War II] and the Taiwan question."

It is clear that Tokyo's refusal to offer a formal apology over wartime atrocities in China has continued to bedevil bilateral ties.

However, moderate intellectuals including famous international affairs expert Shi Yanhong have urged the leadership to consider setting aside the "question of history" by winning Japan's understanding regarding the more crucial issue of countering America's "anti-China containment policy."

Beijing-based strategists have indicated a top priority is to secure Tokyo's pledge that in the event of a Sino-American conflict over Taiwan, U.S. forces cannot use their bases in Japan to launch military actions against China.

Other commentators have contended that Beijing should put the focus on economic ties such as setting up a Chinese-Japanese-South Korean free trade zone.

Military pact

Putin has agreed to pump Siberian oil to northeastern China.
Putin has agreed to pump Siberian oil to northeastern China.

Does Hu have what it takes to break out of the mold set by his predecessor Jiang, who still heads the Central Military Commission as well as the Communist Party's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs?

Long-time Hu watchers are surprised by the speed with which he has outshone the publicity-loving Jiang, who was China's globetrotting cadre extraordinaire for a dozen years.

Late last month, the president made history by abolishing the age-old tradition of having elaborate send-off and welcome-back ceremonies for the overseas visits of top cadres.

Hu also displayed notable tact by not including Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan as a member of his official entourage to Russia, the first leg of his world tour.

Instead, Cao was in Moscow in the capacity of China's representative in the meeting of the defense chiefs of member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Having Cao, a Soviet-trained missile expert, at his side while conducting talks with President Vladmir Putin would give the U.S. the impression that China and Russia were cementing a military pact.

While in Moscow, Hu scored two breakthroughs that eluded his predecessor. One was Putin's commitment to pumping Siberian oil to northeastern China. The other was the SCO's decision to set up a permanent secretariat in Beijing.

Sino-Russian ties were much enhanced by the fact that the Chinese president recognized -- and supported -- Putin's ambition of turning Russia into a quasi-superpower in the diplomatic and military fields.

Hu reportedly gave indications that Beijing would let Moscow take the lead in diplomatic wrangling with the West, especially the U.S.

And both leaders are said to be happy with the so-called "Iraqi model," a reference to Moscow spearheading global opposition to America's incursion into Iraq -- with Beijing providing subtle support to Russia from behind the scenes.

Having charmed the Russians, who share with the Chinese not only a long border but many common concerns, China's top diplomat must show he has the breath of vision to woo countries with radically different values and agendas such as the U.S. and Japan.


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