Schram: China can stop North Korea. Will they?
The whole world is watching.
Watching a warmongering nuclear North Korea. Watching its new young leader, Kim Jong Un, who seems bent on convincing the world he's not just recklessly immature and irrational but missile-ready and maybe megalomaniacal enough to trigger a war that could kill hundreds of thousands.
And that is why, most importantly, the world is also watching China.
The world is watching and desperately hoping that China, a still-developing economic superpower that is North Korea's prime patron, will finally use every one of its economic and military levers to prevent its next-door neighbor from plunging the region into catastrophe.
China has been thrust into its first major test of world leadership. It is a test this wannabe world leader clearly doesn't wanna be taking -- at least not right now. After all, China's Xi Jinping, who became president just a month ago, is intent on fostering what he has called a "sustainable" long-term economic expansion. "China's model of development is not sustainable, so it is imperative for us to speed up the transformation of the growth model," Xi said recently.
That's why the timing of North Korea's push toward war is most inconvenient from China's viewpoint. Recently, Xi was preparing for a major address. He planned to reassure a forum of concerned multinational business leaders by telling them they could always trust China to protect their companies' global interests.
Then, from half a world away, President Barack Obama telephoned and Xi's priorities expanded. Obama was calling to convince Xi to do everything he could to prevent Kim from triggering all-out war. After all, Beijing wields a good bit of influence in Pyongyang: China does $5 billion worth of business with North Korea; it is doubtful a communist North Korea could exist without China's support.
After the two presidents talked, Xi went on to address the business leaders' forum last week in the southern China city of Boao. But the biggest news Xi made there wasn't about his reassurances to global corporations. It was about his veiled warning to North Korea.
"No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains," Xi said, without mentioning North Korea by name. "While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others." Xi added that nations and international bodies should focus on mutual development and not become an "arena where gladiators fight each other."
China has been suspicious of the Obama administration's shift of focus toward Asia and the Pacific. But after North Korea began its latest threats, U.S. officials told China that America had to deploy ships and aircraft to the region to protect its allies. And significantly, China didn't publicly oppose the redeployments.
U.S. officials are convinced China is unhappy -- and probably fed up -- with Kim's words and deeds.
At the United Nations, China reluctantly supported sanctions against North Korea after Pyongyang's Feb. 12 nuclear test. But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice made clear last week that the United States expects China to do more.
"Clearly, with the border they have, with the economic relationship that they have, they can do more," Rice said in a speech at a women's forum in New York. She said China appeared to be "very much of the view that Kim Jong Un has gone too far, and that this now is a situation that has the potential to directly threaten their interests in the region -- both economic and security."
Now -- in the spring of 2013 -- is the winter of the world's discontent with the wackocidal ways of North Korea and its succession of increasingly irresponsible leaders. This may be the moment when the entire responsible world is finally ready to pursue a solution that will produce, at last, a peaceful Korean peninsula. A solution that, in the process, will forge the prospect of a hopeful future for the impoverished, exploited North Korean people.
After all, consider a recent phone call between two of the region's brand-new regional leaders. In March, Xi talked by telephone with South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye (something experts cannot picture happening under China's former president, Hu Jintao). Xi told her that China valued its relations with South Korea. And Xi offered to help the two Koreas achieve "reconciliation and cooperation."
In the coming weeks, a parade of top U.S. officials will travel to Beijing. Let's hope that China finally has a president who is ready to lead his nation into an era of responsible world leadership.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.