Professor Zhu Feng Peking University
By Sunny Lee
Korea Times correspondent
BEIJING _ Most Chinese government bureaucrats and scholars regard the findings by an international team of investigators on the Cheonan incident as not sufficiently standing up to scrutiny, a prominent security expert here said recently. He added that Beijing is annoyed at the planned joint maritime exercises by South Korea and the United States because such a maneuver is likely to exacerbate tensions further in the volatile East Asia region.
“I have to say the majority of Chinese policymakers and academics feel that the Cheonan (investigation) report does not hold water,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing.
The view, starkly different from the South Korean government’s official verdict on the case, nonetheless serves as a pointer that explains China’s reluctance to point the finger at North Korea and condemn it for a torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors in March.
Since the attack, Beijing has called for “calm” from both Koreas. The stance is technically neutral, yet in reality has shielded North Korea from international condemnation. Beijing’s odd adherence to “neutrality” at a critical time when South Korea felt decisive justice was warranted has damaged its ties with Seoul.
In 2008, Seoul and Beijing decided to become “strategic partners.” But on the Cheonan, Zhu said, the two’s strategies and assessments of the situation differed.
Seoul approached the matter as “trouble-maker” Pyongyang taking unprovoked provocative action, and wanted to send a stern warning with some form of punitive measures to ensure no similar incidents, according to Zhu’s interpretation. But China took the situation more seriously, worrying that it might escalate into a major arms clash. “I see different interpretations of how serious the Cheonan incident was between China and South Korea.”
Beijing also differed in the way it viewed how Seoul handled the situation, which is also different from Washington’s assessment. The United States viewed South Korea handled the situation in a coolheaded manner. “I have the greatest admiration for how this (Cheonan incident) has been handled,” Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, said on May 26.
“The Chinese perception is that the Lee Myung-bak government is too politically motivated and overreacted,” Zhu said.
The South Korean government pledged a “stern punishment” against the North _ some conservative groups called for armed retaliation.
“I got the impression that the Chinese leadership feels that the South Korean reaction to the Cheonan was very emotional,” Zhu said.
South Korea and the U.S. treat the incident as an “unprovoked attack.” China sees it in the larger context of the 60-year-long hostility between the two Koreas. “An exchange of fire has long occurred between the two, sporadically and accidentally, during the six decades,” Zhu said.
Zhu, who is also the deputy director of Peking University’s international strategy center, which is headed by Wang Jisi, a “personal advisor” to President Hu Jintao, felt that South Korea made a “tactical” mistake of not inviting China and Russia to serve on the international investigation team. The two are veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council.
“China and Russia should have been invited from the beginning,” he said.
Seoul succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the U.N. Security Council, which condemned the attack but stopped short of pointing the finger at North Korea as the culprit.
South Korea feels that justice was not served and plans to go ahead with the joint naval exercise, which China has objected to for several weeks.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday that the exercise was to send a “clear message of deterrence to North Korea,” and was not aimed at China.
Zhu said the Chinese perception again is different. “The Yellow Sea is a strategically important hot area for China. Even Beijing is not far from the Yellow Sea,” Zhu said.
“The moment is truly delicate,” said Zhu. “Beijing is also worried about the possibility of the situation to spill into a military collision with North Korea. That’s why there is opposition from China.”
“The joint exercise is rocking the boat.”
The Global Times, a popular tabloid in China, warned Friday in an editorial that “Washington should no longer underestimate Beijing's resolve to challenge U.S. military provocation.”
Speculation has risen that Seoul and Washington made a compromise over the scheduled exercises due to the opposition.
Now, attention is mounted on whether the matter heads from here. North Korea expressed its intention to return to the stalled six-party talks, an apparent sign of its wish to “turn the page” after the Cheonan incident, which tainted its international image.
China also wants to move away: “Now is a perfect moment for the international community to consider an exit,” Zhu said.
It is not clear how South Korea’s desire to deliver a “stern message” to North Korea and China’s wish to “leave the scene behind” can be reconciled between the two “strategic partners” whose methods of dealing with the North have proven to be starkly different, even sowing frustration and resentment.
“I urge Beijing and Seoul to hold a high-level dialogue,” Zhu suggested.