BEIJING (Reuters) - China has launched a flurry of efforts aimed at easing tensions between North and South Korea and convening urgent talks among regional powers.
What can China realistically hope to achieve? Here are some answers:
WHAT‘S DRIVING CHINA‘S RESPONSE TO THE CRISIS?
Since North Korea’s shelling of the South last week, the public talk from Beijing has been cautious, simply urging calm and avoiding taking sides.
Yet the calculus between Beijing’s response is clear enough.
China wants to avert a spiraling standoff between its two neighbors. It also hopes to avoid estranging North Korea, a long-time ally Beijing sees as a buffer against U.S. influence.
North Korea depends on China for economic and diplomatic support, but can bristle against overt pressure from Beijing and does not automatically bend to China’s wishes.
On the other hand, South Korea is an important trade partner of China. Behind Seoul stands the military power of the United States, which Beijing worries about.
For China’s leaders, the tricky balancing act calls for diplomatic whispering, not shouting.
“From the strategic vantage-point of national security, North Korea is one of China’s most important neighbors,” Li Xiguang, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in a Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, on Monday.
“China must preserve a state of peace between the North and South of the Korean peninsula, and an independent North Korea that can serve as a buffer between China and U.S. forces.”
China does not want to wade into the rights and wrongs of the North Korean bombardment. Nor does it want to be seen as washing its hands of the crisis. Its answer is to urge talks.
Beijing seems to have absorbed some lessons from a confrontation earlier this year, when South Korea said it had firm evidence North Korea was responsible for torpedoing a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors.
Beijing’s reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan was slower and more tepid, angering South Koreans. This time, it has acted more quickly and vocally, apparently in the hope of escaping charges from its neighbors of indifference and inaction.
But a broad call for talks may not be enough to achieve that.
“China must have the courage to change criticisms from abroad that it is inactive and ineffective in Korean peninsula issues,” wrote Li, the professor.
China has called for talks among chief negotiators in the six-party talks, a stalled process aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in return for aid and other assurances.
Those talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia -- all key actors in the current dispute -- and which have been in mothballs for over two years.
A meeting now would be unlikely to achieve anything substantial, but China believes that sitting down together and talking could help drain away the volatility.
“China feels deeply anxious about developments on the Korean peninsula, and believes it is imperative to strive to ease the current situation,” a senior Chinese diplomat, Dai Bingguo, told the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
This is hard to say. Ties between these two countries are intensely secretive and Pyongyang can be a prickly partner.
China has not openly said that North Korea favors its call for emergency talks, and if Pyongyang was on board, Beijing would be likely to advertise that point.
For now, at least, North Korea may be too preoccupied with the confrontation with Seoul to pay much heed to China.
The United States and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, have urged China to press North Korea harder. But China will step gingerly.
“The Chinese government is doing its fair share. What else can you do? Punch on the table or shout at North Korea? You would make the whole thing worse,” Wang Dong, a professor of international relations at Peking University.
“If we behave like how the U.S. behaves, you would push North Korea into a corner.”
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, editing by Jonathan Thatcher