Stop passing the buck to China, Mr Bush

There is at once something desperate and disingenuous about the Bush administration's constant prodding of China to do more to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Desperate because during her recent tour of Asia, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would miss no sound-bite opportunity to repeat the mantra that Beijing must play a special role in persuading Pyongyang to resume the six-party talks on its nuclear weapons programme. And disingenuous because she must know that this standoff is really between Washington and Pyongyang, with Beijing only a keenly interested bystander.

Indeed, China apparently wants none of the American buck-passing. On Wednesday, President Hu Jintao reminded North Korea's visiting premier, Pak Pong-ju, of the importance of returning to the talks - but tellingly withheld any sticks to get it moving faster in that direction.

The contrast between Chinese and American attitudes towards the North Korean crisis should not be surprising. The US sees the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea through the prism of its global 'war on terror'. Its worst nightmare is a rogue regime like Kim Jong-il's joining hands with al-Qaeda terrorists, who would not think twice about detonating a Pyongyang-supplied radioactive device in New York, Los Angeles or even Shanghai.

As Mr Kim's most important ally, the Chinese, on the other hand, are not losing any sleep over such doomsday scenarios, secure in the belief that his nuclear-tipped Taepodong missiles - if there are any, for the Chinese dispute the US intelligence that Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons - would be pointed towards Japan and Alaska. What troubles them, instead, is the risk of the war of nerves on the Korean Peninsula escalating into a real shooting conflict.

For starters, the ensuing chaos would undoubtedly send hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees into the Manchurian rust-belt region, sparking a massive humanitarian crisis. But far worse from the standpoint of China's historical national interests would be North Korea's collapse and a Seoul-led reunification, with the possibility of the US Eighth Army forward deployed along the Yalu River.

In the Chinese mind, Korea has always been a political and cultural satellite of China in times of peace and a corridor of invasion by foreign armies in times of war (in the last two centuries, it has fought both Japan and the US over Korea). Today, as Beijing sizes up Tokyo's rising antagonism and Washington's unconvincing talk of a strategic partnership, the last thing it wants is another potentially more assertive neighbour on the wrong side of the geopolitical fence in place of an eccentric-but-proven buffer state.

So the Americans are dreaming if they think Chinese diplomacy can serve as a fifth column against North Korea. Losing patience, the US is threatening to take its case to the UN to table a vote on international sanctions against Pyongyang. But this, too, is a blind alley because China is likely to veto the motion.

That does not mean the US has no other options. In fact, the best one is what North Korea has been asking for all along: direct talks. Despite its vitriol against Washington, Pyongyang badly wants relations with America. North Korea's extreme behaviour and the profound sense of insecurity behind it stem from its orphan status in the family of civilised nations. Nothing would reassure it more than to win the approval of its most powerful elder. The question is, does America have the wisdom to see this?

Charles Lee is the Post's assistant opinion pages editor