China must play its part to defuse crisis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 November, 2010, 12:00am

As tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalate once more, global stability hangs in the balance. This time it involves a serious border skirmish and another announcement by the rogue North Korean regime that it is augmenting its nuclear capability in defiance of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, which again is obliged to seize the initiative.

The standard routine follows: condemnation, sanctions and eventual gridlock in enforcing the sanctions due to competing interests of major powers. Throughout this repetitive process, China continues to be the odd man out. North Korea's most current violent provocation was unanimously condemned by all major powers except China. North Korea's act of aggression marks yet another diplomatic embarrassment for the international community, the members of the six-party talks on North Korea and, above all, China.

Despite strong economic growth and a more central role on the global stage, China takes a selective approach in diplomacy. To some extent, it fails to assume its proportional share of international responsibility. Some may argue that China prefers effective quiet, backroom diplomacy. With North Korea, though, this approach has proved fruitless.

The current crisis once again underscores the need for more aggressive collective action. It is time for China to assume a more vocal stance beyond diplomatic platitudes, in full - not selective - co-ordination with other global and regional players. Failure by China, or others, to participate should not prevent more decisive action by those willing to take it, particularly when it comes to interdicting and inspecting North Korean ships on the high seas.

The possibility of a regional arms race increases as North Korean defiance continues to unsettle regional stability. As Japan and South Korea consider developing their own nuclear deterrent and missile defence system in the cold-war-like environment of Northeast Asia, China will naturally regard itself as the real target. The current crisis again underlines the critical need for an international consensus on nuclear non-proliferation.

Western policymakers continue to struggle with the ambiguity of the North Korean regime and are haunted by the uncertainty and unpredictability of its future. Chinese and South Korean fears of a North Korean meltdown also remain real and legitimate. Therefore, discussions among the US, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan must also include contingency plans to deal with worst-case scenarios.

The poor health of the North Korean leader and his son's appointment as heir-apparent continue to play an important role in recent provocations. The intent is to consolidate one's position at home by creating tension abroad. This underscores the fundamental need for greater international efforts and, above all, that China can no longer sit on the fence. The provocation is a wake-up call to steer clear of a catastrophe and the subsequent gruelling recovery for regional stability and global order.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project