By Sunny Lee
Korea Times Correspondent
BEIJING ― As South Korea is likely to bring the matter of the deadly sinking of the warship Cheonan to the United Nations Security Council amid growing suspicions of North Korean involvement, China is also becoming the focus of attention as a veto-wielding permanent council member.
"Obviously, the incident puts South Korea on the spot. But it also puts China on the spot too because China has been endlessly indulging North Korea," Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University told The Korea Times.
The Cheonan, a navy frigate, was on a routine patrol on March 26 when an explosion split it in two and killing 46 sailors.
North Korea denied any involvement, but suspicion remains high given the country's history of provocation and attacks on South Korea.
Beijing is Pyongyang's key ally and also its virtual lifeline for food and energy.
"Every time North Korea does anything, China always smiles and rubs its hands," said Foster-Carter.
Observers view China as predisposed to support North Korea for fear of chaos on the border and a deluge of refugees crossing it. However, Foster-Carter said, when it becomes "virtually clear" that the reclusive state committed the crime, then that would put the growing regional power in a "very hard position."
"China will be very much squeezed. In a way the international community will judge China, just like in other international issues such as the Iranian nuclear program," said Foster-Carter.
An editorial of the local Chosun Ilbo newspaper echoed the view. "China is rising to become a leader in the world. If China takes sides with North Korea, which is threatening regional security, it will be a stain on China's international reputation."
In a summit on Friday in Shanghai, President Lee Myung-bak met with Chinese President Hu Jintao. According to Lee's office, the two leaders had "serious discussions" on the sinking of the naval ship.
South Korean officials said Friday's summit is expected to lead to "full-scale consultations" between the two neighbors in "mapping out an international response" if North Korea is found to be responsible for the sinking of the 1,200-ton warship, Yonhap News Agency said.
Yet, Stephan Haggard, a Korea Affairs expert at the University of California, San Diego, Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, disagreed. "South Korea may want to take this issue to the U.N. Security Council, but I don't see anything that the five Security Council members can sign on to other than what they have been already doing," Haggard told The Korea Times.
Haggard pointed out that as of today there are already as many as seven U.N. sanctions slapped on North Korea. "I don't see anything that can be done further other than something symbolic," he said.
China, Haggard said, has a long-run strategy with respect to North Korea and is not likely to change its posture toward Pyongyang anytime soon. "I think the Chinese strategy is to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea, but at the same time, to engage in North Korea very deeply."
"So, I don't expect China to fundamentally deviate from that strategy, even if on a short-term they may express their displeasure [on North Korea]," he said.
China's popular newspaper Global Times Thursday said China is being given "the dilemma of the judge" by being prodded to make its stance clear at this sensitive time."
Zhang Liangui, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, an elite institute in Beijing for Communist Party cadre, told the newspaper, "If there is a Security Council vote, China will certainly have a hard time making its decision."
Analysts point out that South Korea and even its major ally, the U.S., essentially lack leverage to persuade China, other than trying to win it over on a moralist ground or appeal it to become a "responsible stakeholder."
Foster-Carter yet believes that South Korea is making the right move to first consult with China on the matter before bringing it to the U.N., adding, "The time has come for China to make a choice."
"Maybe China has to choose between the two Koreas sooner or later - the old bad Korea and the new good Korea."