On June 26, 2010, at the end of the two-day G-8 summit held in Muskoka (north of Toronto, Canada), the G-8 countries issued a joint statement called “G8 Muskoka Declaration: Recovery and New Beginnings”1 about their shared views and approaches to major global challenges. The statement announced the launch of the Muskoka Initiative aimed at supporting health systems in developing countries for maternal, newborn and under-five child health (MNCH); it talked about the commitment to accelerate the progress toward achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the target date of 2015; and, addressed security concerns associated with Iran and North Korea amongst other preoccupations. In the 43 paragraph-long declaration, the 34th and 35th paragraphs were directed at North Korea which said that the members “deplore the attack on March 26 that caused the sinking of the Republic of Korea’s naval vessel, the Cheonan, resulting in tragic loss of 46 lives.”
But the G-8 communiqué avoided directly implicating North Korea for the sinking of the naval warship and instead it called for “appropriate measures to be taken against those responsible for the attack.” Nevertheless, the statement demanded North Korea to “refrain from committing any attacks or threatening hostilities” against South Korea. It also beckoned the international community “to ensure the comprehensive enforcement of all existing United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions pertaining to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea,” and urged North Korea to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as proliferation activities.”
The statement also specifically mentioned that North Korea “does not, and cannot have the status of a nuclear-weapon state in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Canada, which chaired the G-8 summit, had presented the G-8 members with a draft of a joint statement on security issues in mid-June, which blamed North Korea for causing the deadly sinking. But the G-8 statement was diluted under substantive Russian pressure and opposition to any clause that directly linked North Korea to the sinking.
The much expected UNSC statement on the Cheonan sinking has been delayed. The delay is primarily due to the still ongoing discussions at the UN on the delicate issue of adopting appropriate wordings which would serve the purpose of conveying to North Korea that its alleged provocative actions have repercussions while at the same time avoiding a language of censure that could either antagonise North Korea or further isolate it from the international community. However, a way out of the contentions over the content of the UN statement has been suggested by South Korea. Ambassador Wi Sung-lac, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, has opined that the joint statement of the G-8 leaders could serve as a basis for discussions at the Security Council and for drafting future document at the UNSC regarding the Cheonan sinking. Following discussions in Washington with US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell on June 29, 2010,2 Wi Sung-lac is reported to have said that “We have the wording [of] the G-8 joint communiqué, which Russia participated in, so we are making the most use of it to produce a Security Council version.”3 But China, which is not a G-8 member, is still against the proposition of mentioning the name of North Korea in the document. In fact, China is of the view that the sinking should be called an “incident” rather than an “attack”, according to sources at South Korea's UN mission in New York. Hence, UN Security Council discussions on the South Korean warship sinking are “stalled”.4
At a press conference on the concluding day of the Group of 20 (G-20) Summit, US President Barack Obama, in blunt comments, criticized China for turning a blind eye to North Korea's belligerent behaviour. President Obama, replying to reporters, said that “I think there's a difference between restraint and wilful blindness”5 by China to North Korea’s military provocation. He categorically said that “We are not going to be able to have serious negotiations with the North Koreans” if China fails to deal resolutely with the incident. In contrast, Russia, the other power that has till now declined to endorse the Cheonan findings was not similarly chastened.
China's state media on June 29, 2010 denounced President Obama for suggesting that it had turned a blind eye to North Korea’s actions, calling his remarks “irresponsible and flippant.”6 China has maintained that its position on the sinking of the Cheonan is “fair and justified.” While literally surviving with China’s support, North Korea has resolutely and adroitly managed to escape being China’s satellite by pursuing its own independent security agenda. Despite the limited leverage which China has over Pyongyang, it still remains the most important channel of communication with North Korea with which it shares a 1,400 kilometre border. It has “conducted a highly visible and unprecedented shuttle diplomacy to ensure that the North Korean regime comes to the negotiating table,”7 evinced in its hosting of the six rounds of Six-Party Talks (SPT) initiated in August 2003. The SPT had finally broken down when North Korea quit the framework, angered by the UN condemnation of its April 5, 2009 rocket launch of what it said was a communications satellite. North Korea considered the UNSC Presidential statement issued on April 13, 2009 as a gross infringement of its sovereignty and vowed never to return to the SPT.
The Obama administration has linked the resolution of the Cheonan crisis to the resumption of the SPT. In fact, unfortunately, the Cheonan incident occurred just when China was nearing a breakthrough in bringing North Korea back to the SPT. There is a consensus amongst the major powers in Northeast Asia for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and China did show accommodation to the US when in 2006 the state-owned Bank of China (BOC) cooperated with the Bush administration to freeze North Korean accounts in a number of Macau-based banks. The Banco Delta Asia (BDA), based in Macau, was identified by the US Treasury Department as “a willing pawn” of North Korea’s “illicit” activities” and froze $24 million worth of North Korean assets.8 In order to bring North Korea back to the SPT on ending its nuclear weapons programmes, the BDA issue was resolved finally when Russia gave the US permission to use a private Russian bank to transfer North Korea’s funds at BDA in 2007. China had also voted for the Japanese-sponsored July 15, 2006 UNSC 1695 resolution which unanimously condemned North Korea’s seven separate missile tests conducted on July 5, 2006.
But at present, the issue at stake is the US upholding and expanding its role as the key shaper of geopolitics in Northeast Asia, and China unwilling to be sidelined by the United States. In fact, the presidents of the US and South Korea, following a June 26 meeting on the margins of G-20 economic summit in Toronto, officially announced that the transfer of operational control of military forces in South Korea will be delayed from April 2012 to December 2015.9 China also seriously grudges the $6 billion worth of US arm sales to Taiwan approved by the Obama administration in late January 2010.
The US has bolstered itself with the renewed strengthening of its alliances with South Korea and Japan. Additionally, the US-led Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) formed in 1999, and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) announced by the US on May 31, 2003, are the frameworks that primarily serve to strengthen its own dominant position in the Northeast Asian region,10 by mobilizing “coalitions against North Korea” and “as a means to enhance the options of containment.”11 On the other hand, by sponsoring the SPT, China demonstrated its indispensability as a peace-broker in Northeast Asia, a venue which, at present, stands truncated.
The UN process in adopting a statement on the Cheonan sinking will reflect how far China will be willing to go and be able to put its weight behind North Korea for a watered down UNSC statement. It is not acceptable to China to see North Korea “coerced into a settlement that only satisfies U.S. agenda.”12 On the contrary, the UNSC statement could test the presumptions of the US that it still possesses that sort of military and diplomatic clout to remain unchallenged in Northeast Asia. On June 30, 2010, China began a six-day live-ammunition exercise in the East China Sea. Though China has denied that the artillery drill was to counter the planned joint South Korea-US exercises in the Yellow Sea between the Korean Peninsula and China, analysts say that “it is an indication that China is more willing to play the military card than it has been before.”13 The US had intended to dispatch the 97,000-ton nuclear powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) for the joint exercise which, at present, has been postponed to July for fear of invoking China’s anger which is already perturbed by surveillance carried out by US warships and planes in the South China Sea and East China Sea. According to Shi Yinhong, a senior expert on US studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, “Any large country has its bottom line for military vigilance and pride. The US-ROK drill has drawn angry response from the Chinese public and I think that is one reason behind its delay.” On the other hand, Chen Hu, editor-in-chief of the World Military magazine affiliated to the Xinhua News Agency, said that the “PLA can take the presence of the giant aircraft carrier fighting group as a ‘drill target’.”14
China’s military has developed at an unprecedented rate exceeding the expectations of most US intelligence estimates. Defence Secretary Roberts Gates said in a September 16, 2009 speech to the Air Force Association15 that “Investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare (by China), anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific — in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups.”16 At a time when China’s military is become increasingly assertive, it is equally incumbent on China as it is on the US to prevent “mistakes and miscalculations” both in words and action, which might stoke uncertainty in the region leading to consequences that no one wants.