North Korea has a long history of communicating with the United States through provocation and brinksmanship, and it has played to type ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's four-nation trip to Asia that began Sunday. In recent weeks, Pyongyang has annulled its maritime border with South Korea, renounced the nonaggression agreement between the two countries, and moved missiles and equipment around in ways that could signal preparations for a launch, according to U.S. officials.
For her part, Secretary Clinton has responded with understated coolness, continuing the State Department practice of publicly and privately encouraging the North not to do anything stupid. On Friday, she told reporters, "We hope that North Korea will refrain from provocative actions and words at this point." And before her departure, U.S. diplomatic sources say, the State Department weighed in with the Chinese in hopes that they can dissuade any bad behavior by Kim Jong Il. (See images of life at China's fringes.)
Washington's latest contact with the Chinese is, in many ways, more interesting than the predictable pre-trip posturing by Pyongyang. Change is afoot in Washington, and China, which controls much of the food and fuel that keeps North Korea afloat, has more reasons than usual to try to help. Where Clinton's goals on the Japan, Indonesia and South Korea legs of the trip are fairly straightforward, U.S. policy towards China is in flux, and there are opportunities for Beijing to shape and take advantage of a new relationship with Washington.
The Obama team is trying hard to avoid the experience of the last three administrations, which began their relations with China on a confrontational note, struggling to improve relations thereafter. "This Administration is determined to get off on the right foot with China," says a senior U.S. official. But it will take more than just a hospitable tone for Washington to get the help it wants from Beijing. North Korea is just the start. Prospects for success on Administration priorities from climate change, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran could all be greatly improved with Chinese assistance. The same holds true on a variety of other issues, such as energy security, Burma, Zimbabwe and nonproliferation. "Global issues and third country issues are going to be the real focus and the test of the relationship," says the senior Administration official. (See pictures of the world's reaction to Obama's inauguration.)
Climate change is one opportunity for the Obama Administration to establish a positive working relationship with Beijing. The two countries are the world's top two producers of greenhouse gases, and China, though determined to continue its economic expansion, has recognized that climate change is an urgent problem. China hopes to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions through technology, an objective for which it needs U.S. help. Some in Washington see the climate-change issue as sufficiently important to be the core focus of the new Administration's relationship with Beijing.
The U.S. will pursue climate-change talks with Beijing aggressively, but Michael Green, a Bush Administration Asia expert who met with Clinton this month, says she is unlikely to build the whole relationship around it because there are so many other important issues between the two countries. Iran is high on the list. China is Iran's largest trading partner, and is a key arms supplier. The U.S. is desperate to get China to play a tougher role on sanctions against Iran, but even discreet assistance would be welcome. Until now, China has dismissed the most thorough U.S. arguments for why it is in Beijing's interest to help crackdown on Iran.
Another area where the two have mutual and inextricably linked interests is the global financial crisis. China holds an enormous amount of American debt and the U.S., throughout its economic boom, fueled China's growth through its consumption. It's an indication of how serious Washington is about progress on the China relationship that there has been an intense competition between the State Department and the Treasury Department over who will control which parts of the U.S.-China relationship. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner offended Beijing by accusing the Chinese of manipulating their currency to the detriment of the U.S. Since then, State has tried to expand its remit on economic issues, but is expected to cede much of that ground to Treasury in the end, because Treasury and Geithner have the expertise.
While the U.S. has a long list of issues on which it wants China's support, Beijing has a list of its own: China wants diminished U.S. arms sales to Taiwan; a greater say in the decision-making of the International Monetary Fund, and tougher regulations on the financial system in wealthy countries to prevent future shocks. It also wants an end to U.S. hectoring over human rights, particularly in respect to Tibet and Sudan.
Just what Washington is willing to give on all of these issues is not clear. In theory there is room for small deals to begin the new relationship well, but the larger issues may prove as intractable as ever. In any case, the opportunities are clear to both sides, and they intend to pursue them. Which is bad news for North Korea because the last thing China wants now is to see the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship with Washington damaged by Pyongyang.