China not consulted before island barrage

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 November, 2010, 12:00am

Pyongyang's deadly shelling of a South Korean border island apparently took Beijing by surprise and once again put China in a diplomatic tight spot, experts say.

The artillery exchange between the two Koreas was the top breaking news on leading mainland news portals within minutes of the first report, although it was downgraded later on the 7pm news broadcast by China Central Television.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing was concerned about the incident and called on both sides to 'do more to contribute to peace'.

Most mainland foreign and military affairs experts said all the signs suggested that Beijing had no idea about the attack in advance. They also agreed that China would feel the pressure as the world will look at how far Beijing is prepared to go to back its important but unpredictable ally.

'China is promoting the resumption of the six-party talks early next year. There is no way China would have allowed this if it had known in advance,' said Professor Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University. 'This attack is a total upset of China's efforts.'

Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University said that in line with previous shock tactics, Pyongyang had not consulted Beijing in advance.

'If they inform China [and are told not to] and still go ahead with it, wouldn't that anger China more?' Shi said.

Most mainland experts believed the attack would not create a greater crisis. The two Koreas had similar skirmishes over Yeonpyeong, a disputed island along the border, in 1999 and 2002.

'Strictly speaking, this is still a domestic dispute,' Sun said.

But as Pyongyang's key economic and military backer, other countries will look at China to rein in North Korea.

'North Korea is a diplomatic negative asset for China. Every time it does something, the world thinks China's backing it,' Sun said.

It is also difficult for Beijing to keep silent this time, as the latest North Korean attack resulted in civilian casualties.

The incident will also be a setback for China's diplomatic efforts to get the six-party talks back on track.

Beijing hoped the six countries - the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan - would be able to go back to the negotiating table early next year.

But North Korea has insisted on direct talks between itself and the US as a precondition. The US, on the other hand, said Pyongyang's new nuclear facilities had made such negotiations impossible.

'But perhaps China could use this as an opportunity to call for direct talks between North and South Korea, which has been long sought by the United States and South Korea as a premise for resuming the six-party talks,' Sun said.

Some mainland experts said the attack was just a ploy by North Korea to 'force' the US into direct talks.

Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing, said: 'North Korea is actually keen on talks, but it found that the US and the South Korea are not well motivated.'

It could also be related to the change of leadership in Pyongyang.

Antony Wong Dong, president of Macau's International Military Association, said the attack might be a tactic by Kim Jong-il to rally more support for his son and appointed successor Kim Jong-un.

'Kim Jong-il is very sick, and he knows his time is limited. He has to help his son, who is just in his 20s, to consolidate his power,' Wong said.