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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (October 26, 2006)

U.S. and China: The Great Thaw

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

The North Korean nuclear test may have created an atmosphere of crisis in the world. But, at the same time, it has greatly improved China's relations with the United States: the two countries are working closely together to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms programme.

This new situation is recognised by both Washington and Beijing. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that recent developments suggest Beijing was becoming more of a partner on issues important to Washington. She made the comment during a swing through Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, which - along with the US and North Korea - make up the countries taking part in the six-party talks.

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

"So perhaps some day in the history books, [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il will get a lot of credit for bringing the US and China closer together," he joked.

Both Dr Rice and Mr Hill have underlined the significance of the fact that China actually joined the other 14 members of the UN Security Council to denounce North Korea, its erstwhile ally. "Not bad for a couple of years' work," Dr Rice said - apparently referring to the period Washington and Beijing had worked together on the North Korean nuclear issue.

China, too, recognises its own increased importance to the US. When President Hu Jintao received Dr Rice on Friday, he said her visit showed "that US President George [W.] Bush and the US government attach great importance to US-China relations".

Actually, the North Korean nuclear issue has provided a geostrategic rationale for the Chinese-American relationship for the past few years - ever since Beijing became both mediator and host in the international talks to get Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons programme.

China and North Korea were allies during the Korean war against the US and South Korea. The two are still technically allies, since a 1961 treaty of friendship obligates each to go to the other's assistance if it is attacked by a third country.

Now, however, the rift between the two is palpable. Twice in three months, Beijing has joined the US and the other Security Council members in voting for a resolution denouncing Pyongyang.

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

According to a North Korean spokesman, the resolution "cannot be construed otherwise than as a declaration of war" against Pyongyang. It 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 North Korean Central News Agency publicised 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".

These words seem a clear allusion to China which, after the death of Mao Zedong , gave up class struggle and embraced capitalist principles.

Beijing's growing closeness to the US 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 be healed in the near term. Gone forever are the days when Beijing described its relationship with North Korea as being as close as that between lips and teeth.

(Originally appeared in the October 25, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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