Unsurprisingly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to China has so far been dominated by talks with Chinese officials over the sinking of a South Korean warship, an act presumed to have been carried out by North Korea.
Assuming conspiracy theories such as those outlined by Japanese writer Tanaka Sakai, who suggested that the Cheonan may have been sunk by ‘friendly’ US fire rather than a North Korean torpedo, are wide of the mark (and this version of events was itself seemingly torpedoed when a US submarine Sakai said may also have been sunk turned up in Hawaii) China won’t be amused by its Communist brethren’s actions.
China is generally seen as the only country with anything approaching influence over the Hermit Kingdom, and it will (or certainly should have) been thankful for South Korea’s measured response—South Korean officials were restrained following the March 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, downplaying speculation Pyongyang was responsible and initially suggesting it was a North Korean mine left over from the two countries’ conflict.
But after a joint, multi-country investigation found what it described as ‘overwhelming’ evidence that North Korea was indeed responsible, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had little choice but to announce a tough response, suspending trade and demanding an apology. Lee also said that South Korea would refer the matter to the UN Security Council, a move that puts permanent member China in the spotlight.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit Seoul on Friday for talks with Lee, but Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have reportedly urged ‘calmness and restraint’. Presumably they’d acknowledge that the South’s response has, until now, demonstrated exactly that (although it has now resumed ‘psychological warfare’ in the form of loudspeaker broadcasts that have been on hold for the past six years).
Beijing has no interest in conflict or a North Korean collapse, so its caution is understandable. But Wen will also need to ask himself how Beijing would respond to the inevitable domestic pressure that would follow in the event of a similar incident occurring with a Chinese vessel.
The pressure to respond would be enormous, as the reaction to the accidental bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 demonstrates. Back then, China's ambassador to the United Nations described ‘NATO's barbarian act’ as ‘a gross violation of the United Nations charter, international law and the norms governing international relations’ and tens of thousands of Chinese took to the streets in sometimes violent protests. Meanwhile, apologies by Bill Clinton and US officials were initially not allowed to be broadcast by state media.
Not exactly in the interests of calmness or restraint.