By Sunny Lee
Korea Times correspondent
BEIJING — There was no way for South Korea to persuade China to accept the results of an international inquiry on the Cheonan because China’s stance was predetermined by its own interests that made it unable, under any circumstances, to finger North Korea as the perpetrator of the tragic attack in March, said a prominent U.S. expert on China-North Korea relations.
History is filled with “what if” questions. It is particularly so when the outcome is less than what one expected. For some South Koreans, the presidential statement of the United Nations Security Council on the Cheonan is one. The international body condemned the fatal attack, but stopped short of directly blaming North Korea as the culprit.
Some asked: was there anything South Korea could have done differently to persuade China, a long-time enabler of the North?
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said “no.”
“I think the Chinese made a decision shortly after the sinking of the ship that their interests dictated that they remain neutral; they would not under any circumstances finger North Korea as the perpetrator of the attack.
“So, there was nothing that South Korea could have done to achieve the goal of convincing China to accept the findings of the investigation report,” she said.
Against this backdrop, Glaser said the U.N. outcome deserves a better appreciation. “The presidential statement was not as tough as the U.S. and South Korea wanted, but nevertheless it is a good statement. And I do think that it sends an important message to North Korea,” she said.
“The point is that North Korea is mentioned, just as North Korea was mentioned in the G8 statement. The logic of the statement suggests that North Korea was responsible. I think that’s about the best we could get.”
She concluded: “I couldn’t think of anything that South Korea could have done differently that would have improved the outcome.”
Beijing has repeatedly protested the planned joint naval exercises by Seoul and Washington as a provocative maneuver that will likely exacerbate the situation further in the volatile region where tensions already remain high since the fatal sinking of the South Korean navy frigate.
Shen Dingli, a Chinese security expert, wrote in the Global Times, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, that the naval drills, with a possible participation of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, poses “a serious threat” to China. The same paper also said on Sunday that South Korea’s leaning closer to the U.S. for military protection in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident is essentially playing into Washington’s interests.
But Glaser said China’s claim is putting the horse before the cart. “The Chinese tend to see this (Cheonan incident) as a ‘winner and loser’ game and point out that the U.S. has benefited from the geopolitical situation. They say that as a result of the incident, the South Korea-U.S. alliance is stronger, the transfer of operational control was delayed, Japan made a decision to keep the U.S. bases, and now the U.S. and South Korea are planning a big exercise.
“These are negative consequences for the Chinese security environment. But it was a function of North Korea’s actions. It is not a function of anything the U.S. has done. If North Korea continues to undertake provocative actions, surely there will be a further deterioration of the Chinese security environment. The Chinese should therefore think twice about their unwillingness to criticize North Korea,” Glaser said.
The U.S. has not formally announced the specifics of the joint exercise, including the participating assets and the timing. The details of the drill will be finalized when Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, and Robert Gates, the defense minister, meet their South Korean counterparts on Wednesday in Seoul.
Yet speculation has risen that Seoul and Washington made a compromise over the scheduled exercises due to Beijing’s opposition, which will place the aircraft carrier George Washington in the East Sea, not in the originally planned Yellow Sea.
“I would not attach so much importance to a decision to involve the carrier George Washington, either in the East Sea or the Yellow Sea. Many Chinese are portraying this as if this is unprecedented. But in fact it is not. If the carrier enters the Yellow Sea, it would not be the first time,” Glaser said.
The last time the George Washington participated in an operation in the Yellow Sea was in November. China didn’t protest then.
But this time, the Chinese foreign ministry has expressed ‘‘firm opposition” to the war games five times already.
Chinese Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, who doubles his role as a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, said on Hong Kong TV earlier this month: “If a U.S. aircraft carrier enters the Yellow Sea, it will become a moving target” for the Chinese military.
Glaser said that the U.S. will seek to avoid leaving an impression that it has caved into Chinese pressure. “If Beijing were to conclude that the exercise was modified because of its pressure, that could lead China to believe that it can intimidate the U.S. into not operating its ships close to China’s shores. Such a judgment could lead to future miscalculations.”
Meanwhile, pundits are debating, after the Cheonan incident comes to a close, when South Korea and the U.S. will move the stalled six-nation denuclearization talks forward.
Glaser said the U.S. is not in a hurry. Washington will carefully vet first, she said, whether Pyongyang is really committed to denuclearization or is just using the Cheonan incident to try to bolster the position of the heir designate for internal propaganda.
“I think perhaps more time needs to pass after the sinking of the Cheonan before the six-party talks can be reconvened. Ultimately, however, the timing of reengagement with North Korea will be determined by whether we are convinced that it is serious about denuclearization.”