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Friday, Oct. 27, 2006

Crisis boosts U.S.-China ties


HONG KONG -- North Korea's nuclear test Oct. 9 may have created a crisis atmosphere in the world but, at the same time, it has greatly improved China's relations with the United States as the two countries work closely together to put pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear-arms program.

This new situation is recognized by both Washington and Beijing. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on a swing through Japan, South Korea, China and Russia -- which along with the U.S. and North Korea make up the countries taking part in the "six-party talks" -- that some developments suggest that Beijing was becoming more of a partner on issues important to Washington.

Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia responsible for the North Korea talks, said at a forum in Washington that the two countries have "really come closer together as a result of this terrible provocation by the North Koreans."

"So perhaps someday in the history books, Kim Jong Il will get a lot of credit for bringing the U.S. and China closer together," he added facetiously.

Both Rice and Hill have underlined the significance of China actually joining the other 14 members of the United Nations Security Council to denounce North Korea, its erstwhile ally.

"Not bad for a couple of years' work," Rice said, apparently referring to the time Washington and Beijing had spent working together on the North Korean nuclear issue.

China, too, recognizes its increased importance to the U.S. When President Hu Jintao received Rice last Friday, he said her visit showed "that U.S. President George (W.) Bush and the U.S. government attach great importance to U.S.-China relations."

Actually, the North Korean nuclear issue has provided a geostrategic rationale for the Chinese-American relationship for the last few years, ever since Beijing became both mediator and host in the international talks to get Pyongyang to end its nuclear-weapons program. Such a rationale had been largely missing since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

China and North Korea were allies during the Korean War in the 1950s against the Union States and South Korea. The two are still technically allies, since a treaty of friendship signed in 1961 obligates each to go to the assistance of the other if one of them should come under military attack from a third country.

Now, though, the rift between the two is palpable, with Beijing joining the U.S. and the other members of the U.N. Security Council twice in three months in voting for a resolution denouncing North Korea.

While the North Korean media has not criticized China by name, some recent articles clearly were directed at Beijing. Reserving most of its venom for the U.S., Pyongyang has denounced all the other members of the Security Council -- including China -- for supporting the resolution.

According to a North Korean spokesman, the resolution "cannot be construed otherwise than a declaration of war" against Pyongyang and was intended to "destroy the socialist system" in the country. Such a charge would be especially hurtful to China, which still considers itself a socialist country.

In fact, the day after the resolution was adopted, the Korean Central News Agency publicized a signed article in the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun that called for the maintenance of "revolutionary principles."

To shrink back from revolutionary principles, it said, "means surrender and ruin" and would ultimately lead to "subordination and slavery."

"This has been proved by the situation of some countries," it said. "Those countries that were building socialism in the past deviated from the revolutionary principles with no faith in socialism when facing difficulties and ordeals. And they were afraid of the threat and blackmail by the imperialists and yielded to them."

These words seem a clear allusion to China, which after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong gave up class struggle and embraced capitalist principles, even though China insists it has not abandoned socialism and is merely employing the market economy as a tool.

China's growing closeness to the U.S. is likely to lead to increased trust, which will help resolve other problems. If there was doubt in Washington before about China's attitude to a fellow Communist country, that has no doubt been laid to rest.

The rift with North Korea is not likely to heal in the near term. The days when China described its relationship with North Korea as being as close as that between lips and teeth are gone forever.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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