The unlikely winner

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2010, 12:00am

North Korea is known best for its bluster and threats, rather than its political analysis, which is why its foreign ministry's commentary on the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 South Koreans perished, makes for such interesting reading.

The statement, issued last Friday, denied Seoul's charge that the South Korean warship was the victim of a torpedo attack launched by Pyongyang. To find out who was responsible, it added, just look at who has benefited from the incident.

The North Korean statement concluded - quite correctly - that the incident has put China in an awkward position while helping to strengthen America's alliances with both Japan and South Korea, which had been under some strain.

China has been under pressure, particularly from the United States and South Korea, to join in a condemnation of North Korea in the United Nations Security Council. Over the weekend, Premier Wen Jiabao was in South Korea for a tripartite summit involving the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan and, while there, he said China had not yet reached a conclusion on the incident.

Russian experts have accepted an invitation to sift through the evidence, including a torpedo propeller allegedly with North Korean markings, which led a multinational group of investigators to conclude that Pyongyang was responsible.

China, too, has been invited to send experts to examine the evidence. So far, there has been no report as to whether the Chinese have accepted this invitation. If the Russians, after examining the evidence, concur with the opinion of the South Korean, American, British, Australian and Swedish experts, it would undoubtedly put more pressure on China to take a position. China is certainly in an awkward situation, to put it mildly. Beijing, after all, is the principal supporter of Pyongyang and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, recently visited China and was f?ted by President Hu Jintao .

In the meantime, Beijing is trying to reassure the rest of the world that it has nothing to fear from a militarily and economically powerful China because it is a responsible member of the international community. In particular, China is seeking greater economic integration with its East Asian neighbours, South Korea and Japan, possibly forging an economic community that would exclude the US.

The Democratic Party of Japan gained power last year on a platform of strengthening the country's links with Asia, principally China, while re-examining its alliance with the United States. Yukio Hatoyama, before becoming prime minister, pledged to move the American Futenma air base away from Okinawa. Last week, however, Hatoyama agreed that the base could stay in Okinawa, citing the North Korean threat. The North Korean statement accused the US of having 'hyped' a threat in order to force Japan to yield.

The Cheonan incident also drove South Korea closer to the US. While President Lee Myung-bak has emphasised the importance of the alliance, his two predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, had both held summit talks with Kim Jong-il and seemingly distanced South Korea from the US. Whether or not the threat was 'hyped', North Korea is certainly right in concluding that the Cheonan incident has severely embarrassed China while strengthening the American position in Asia.

There has been speculation that the attack on the Cheonan was launched in retaliation for the loss of a North Korean patrol boat in a skirmish last November. If so, North Korea and China are both paying a heavy diplomatic price. Sooner or later, the Chinese will have to make a choice.

And, regardless of what they choose, they will not emerge unscathed. Either North Korea will see them as an unreliable ally or the rest of the world will decide that China is not a responsible stakeholder. And the big winner, ironically, will be the US.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator