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UNSC statement on “Cheonan”: Sino-US compromise or limits of diplomacy

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 23, 2010

    The release of the relatively moderate UNSC presidential statement on July 9, 2010 condemning the Cheonan sinking has finally put to rest the apprehensions about the possible serious consequences in case a punitive tone was adopted by the Council since North Korea had threatened to respond with force to any provocative Security Council language or action. Without mentioning North Korea, the statement said that “The Security Council deplores the attack on 26 March 2010 which led to the sinking of the ROK naval ship, the Cheonan, resulting in the tragic loss of 46 lives” and called for “appropriate and peaceful measures to be taken against those responsible for the incident.” It acknowledged the findings of the South Korean-led Joint Civilian-Military Investigation (JIG), which had concluded that North Korea was responsible for sinking the Cheonan, though the Council only expressed its “deep concern” about it. The distinguishable part of the statement is the inclusion of the remark that the Security Council took “note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident.” The statement also underscored the “importance of preventing further attacks or hostilities” against the South or the region.

    The UNSC statement is more a testimony to Sino-US compromise arrived at after nearly a month and half of negotiations rather than being a “diplomatic victory” as has been hailed by North Korea. The wording reflects, on the one hand, the firmness of China’s resolve to arrest the fall of events into military escalation and, on the other hand, the extent to which the US can manoeuvre critical opinion by global diplomacy alone. Contrary to a resolution which has binding legal implications, the UNSC presidential statement lacks legal force and is more in the nature of a reprimand or a “slap on the wrist”. China’s main purpose in preventing the adoption of harsh language in the UNSC statement was the fear that it would trigger a response by North Korea, which in turn would justify US retaliation thus leading to unintended consequences.

    If China is frustrated with the US for its inflexibility on the resolution of the Korean nuclear crisis, it is equally frustrated with North Korea for its obdurate behaviour in enhancing its nuclear weapons programme and with regard to not undertaking economic reforms. China feels that by adopting the Chinese economic model, North Korea would become sufficiently integrated in the international system. North Korea’s refusal to do so because of fear of losing political control in the event of any mayhem following widespread changes, unfortunately consigns it to the vicious cycle of economic backwardness, military dominance and manipulation complicating it with a human rights problem. The language of the UNSC statement is not as “ambiguous” as it is has been portrayed. Though it appears as if China has given the benefit to North Korea by remaining its patron, the statement also alludes to a warning to the North “not to stray too far from the parameters China has set.” The carefully worded statement might be a result of a political compromise between the US and China and, however inexplicit the UN statement has eventually turned out to be, the circumstances that threatened to submerge the peninsula into ‘war cries” seems to have been, at least temporarily, quelled.

    However, this respite is being displaced by tensions arising in the region in the wake of the formal announcement by the US and South Korea about the naval drills which had been delayed since June, due to repeated objections by China. On July 20, 2010, the US and South Korea released a joint statement1 on the series of military exercises to be conducted from July 25 till July 28, 2010 aimed at sending a message of deterrence to North Korea. The first in the series is a combined maritime and air readiness exercise named “Invincible Spirit” and will involve the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, about 8,000 Army, Air Force and Navy personnel, 20 ships and 200 aircraft. Adm. Robert Willard of the US Pacific Command has said that the exercises will take place on the east side of the Korean peninsula, in the Sea of Japan. Later, additional exercises will be held in the Yellow Sea, on the west side of the Korean peninsula, adjacent to China. But he did not confirm whether the exercises in the Yellow Sea, claimed by China as a military operations zone, would involve the George Washington. The announced schedule reflects a change in the planned joint naval operations, which were originally to take place entirely in the Yellow Sea between Korea and China.

    China is of the view that such exercises in the Yellow Sea would further exacerbate mistrust in the region as it makes its security vulnerable, since according to China, the purpose of the joint military exercise is aimed at strategic reconnaissance and testing initial combat plans2 because the US aircraft carrier has the ability to monitor and detect the hydro-geological conditions of China's submarines’ channels out to sea. US Navy spokesman Cmdr. Jeff A. Davis said the drills weren't meant to intimidate China or destabilize the region, but “are designed to ensure we have the ability to maintain peace and defeat aggression on the Korean peninsula.”3

    If the US seeks China’s cooperation on major global issues then it will have to do so by considering it as an equal partner, or at least by showing sensitivity to its critical concerns. The fact that a portion of the naval drill has been shifted to the Sea of Japan shows that the US is not entirely averse to this notion, and it has conveyed this gesture in a small measure. Nevertheless, the US, at present is also sending a powerful message to both China and North Korea that the battles half-won in diplomatic negotiations would remain inconsequential in as much as the US retains its unparalleled military strength which no power can as yet equal, and if need be, it will not hesitate to take appropriate military action against North Korea.