China needs to bring N Korea back to the table
The world has long been used to attention-seeking provocations by North Korea's troublesome dictatorship to compensate for its relative international isolation, though it has never been comfortable with them. It now has fresh cause for unease.
Yesterday's missile tests in defiance of world opinion are a threat to regional stability. The missiles could offer a delivery system for nuclear weapons that the rogue nation claims to have. They include a long-range version which failed, but is said to be capable of reaching Alaska and the North American seaboard.
The tests pose diplomatic headaches for Washington and Beijing.
They are an urgent cue to Beijing, as Pyongyang's ally and host of stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons programme, to redouble its efforts to coax North Korea back to the negotiating table. They are also a cue to the Bush administration, which is coming under increasing pressure to consider direct talks with the Pyongyang regime, to avoid adding to the provocation.
In announcing the tests well in advance and then going ahead with them, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has shown his skill at playing friends against foes as he manoeuvres for concessions.
Washington has repeatedly ruled out direct talks in the past, instead making demands the North Koreans find unacceptable. Indeed, conservatives in the Bush administration have been scathing in their criticism of a visit to North Korea in 2000 by Madeleine Albright, then president Bill Clinton's secretary of state.
With a gun at its head, it seems a stretch now to expect the United States to even consider negotiating. It is a notion that will be fiercely resisted on both sides of the American political divide. But it is also one that is gaining support from unlikely quarters. Senior Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are among the most recent to have called for direct talks.
The foreign ministers of China and South Korea, which is pursuing reconciliation with the North, have discussed a similar proposal as a way of reviving the six-party process in Beijing.
It seems a problematical prospect at this stage. But the suggestion remains distinctly preferable to a military response to the threat posed by North Korean missiles, not to mention a proposal by two defence experts to launch a pre-emptive attack on the long-range missiles.
The regime may be unpredictable, and a successful long-range missile test would bring it a step closer to having the ability to deliver nuclear weapons as far as America. But the threat is not imminent enough to justify a pre-emptive strike. The US cannot afford to put its moral and diplomatic authority at risk, as it has in invading Iraq without United Nations backing and in abuses of human rights in the 'war on terror'.
The threat that North Korea poses to regional security must be resolved by diplomatic means, and China must shoulder a leading role.
Japan, which has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, has every reason to feel nervous about missile tests in its backyard by a rogue nuclear power. But it is China that has the overriding strategic interest.
The tests threaten to heighten tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. They are bound to add to the pressure in Japan for more defence self-reliance and could draw Japan and the US even closer together in defence.
Beijing has put forward a new proposal to revive the six-nation talks between China, the United States, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and Japan. A Foreign Ministry spokesman rightly says they are important to maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
Premier Wen Jiabao's public appeal to Pyongyang not to launch the missiles fell on deaf ears. But Beijing can still be instrumental in bringing Pyongyang and Washington to the negotiating table by diplomacy behind the scenes.