In the wake of North Korea's artillery fusillade, President Obama's foreign-policy team is looking to see whether China, which has the most leverage with the isolated regime, responds in a way that the administration considers productive.
"The key to all of this is China," a senior administration official said last night, asking not to be identified in order to provide insight into the the President's thinking. "They feel the pressure and they need to feel the pressure."
As George W. Bush did before him, Obama insists that only multilateral engagement of North Korea will keep the regime's ambitions in check. But he has changed the tone of U.S.-China policy with the intention of enabling Beijing to live up to its own claim as a power in the Pacific.
The shelling, however, could not have come at a worst time for China. President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make his first state visit to the United States in January, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China that same month to smooth out tensions that have complicated the military’s relationship with its Chinese counterpart. The Chinese government was as surprised as the United States to learn last week that North Korea was much further along in its uranium-enrichment project than previously thought--the exact type of unexpected announcement that Beijing officials had hoped their recent meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would prevent.
Bonnie Glaser, a political scientist who has consulted on China for the U.S. government, said that Beijing "is genuinely worried about anything that could lead to instability" on the Korean peninsula.
But, "They don't want to be seen as siding with North Korea, and they don't want to be seen as siding with the U.S. camp, either," Glaser said. China's reaction to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March "demonstrated that in spades," she noted. Beijing recognized that an incident had occurred, but it did not formally endorse a finding that the North Koreans were to blame.
Obama's intention has been to convince China that it cannot keep its head in the sand, particularly if it wants a peaceful transition of power from Kim to his son, Kim Jong-un. That's one reason, the administration's Asia hands have said, the White House is so intent on bringing China into every discussion about North Korea, and why Obama has spent so much time developing a personal relationship with Hu.
"Obama went over to China and he definitely made nice to the Chinese and said all the right things and paid them a lot of respect and so on and they clearly have not reciprocated," said Roger Cliff, a former defense official who studies Asia policy for The RAND Corporation, "North Korea is one of the areas where they haven’t been moore cooperative than they were before."
Privately, administration officials have warned China that the drama on the Korean peninsula reflects poorly on Beijing. The White House's response to the latest incident is still evolving, but it will probably involve a strong assertion that North Korea has even less of a chance for direct talks with the United States than before, and that only through a multilateral process would Pyongyang earn economic assistance that might persuade it to scale back its weapons program. Early Wednesday morning, the Pentagon announced it would participate in joint military exercises with South Korea, and dispatched a carrier group led by the U.S.S. George Washington to the waters off the Korean peninsula.
On Capitol Hill, top lawmakers are also focusing on China. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for the administration to "place major focus on China--whose support, and acquiescence to North Korean WMD activities have been emboldened."
So far, Obama's reset of U.S.-China relations has not been entirely focused on the Koreas. Administration officials like to say that the U.S. is capable of having "17 different conversations at once with China." They can agree on fissile materials and on sanctions against Iran while having disagreements about whether China undervalues its currency and contributes to worldwide economic instability. But when North Korea comes to shove, the real test is whether China's actions in the here and now, its response to an unanticipated crisis, will better serve U.S. interests.
Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Bill Burton gave little guidance about what the U.S. might do but reiterated condemnation of the attack. The president has largely avoided commenting on camera during the incident, an effort to avoid rewarding the North Korean provocation with a direct response. But Obama did have a long scheduled interview with ABC News's Barbara Walters in which he said, telling the broadcaster that "We strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea."
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. According to news reports, the government in Beijing said it was aware of the incident and was "concerned."