Against the backdrop of tension on the Korean peninsula soaring to its highest level in decades, the world's new presumed superpower decided the moment had come to strut its stuff. China dispatched its most important diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, to Seoul for hurried talks with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. Back in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry summoned journalists late on Sunday afternoon to announce that China was calling on the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia and, yes, North Korea all the members of the so-called six-party talks to gather in December for "emergency consultations" on how to arrest the deteriorating security situation in the Koreas. With images of the bombed-out Yeonpyeong Island still flickering on TV screens across South Korea, where the country's military was at its highest nonwartime state of alert, China was calling for talks about the resumption of the six-party talks.
The South Korean response was polite enough, but firm. As a senior official in Lee's administration told TIME on Tuesday, "We think the first thing for any member [of the international community] to do is to state North Korea's responsibility for the recent attack." (China still hasn't.) Without that, the official said icily, "the suggestion for dialogue lacks any sincerity." In Washington on Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs didn't even bother being polite. He was derisive: "The United States and a host of others I don't think are interested in stabilizing the region through a series of p.r. activities."
Make no mistake: the world and the U.S. and South Korea in particular wanted China to do something. What they wanted and still want China to do is to send Dai (or some other senior party official who represents the center of the Chinese power) to Pyongyang not to talk about the six-party talks but to knock heads. And to keep knocking heads until Kim Jong Il and his third son, heir apparent Kim Jong Un, 28, get the message that the North's provocative behavior has got to stop.
Yet with North and South Korea inching closer to a resumption of one of the 20th century's bloodiest wars, China's diplomatic response seemed tin-eared at best and clueless at worst. It refused publicly to criticize its ally and then called for a resumption of a diplomatic process that has been stalled for two years and which, at this moment anyway, is irrelevant. No wonder an exasperated Western diplomat in Seoul told TIME on Monday that when it comes to North Korea, "China just seems to be missing the point."
The point, he hastened to add, is this: China has already, through its sustained economic growth and its size, drawn South Korea into its orbit. Beijing is Seoul's largest trading partner, and has been for several years now. No less than 21.5% of South Korea's exports in 2009 went to China. (Next on the list is the U.S., at just 10.9%.) Both South Korea and China, via trade, are making each other richer. A Seoul-led reunified Korea (minus the Kim dynasty) would turn the North into one vast construction site almost instantaneously. And as anyone who has been to China in the past two decades understands, the Chinese leadership know a thing or two about turning a country into a construction site. Instead, the leadership in China seems content to play a conservative, balance-of-power, keep-your-buffer-state-afloat-no-matter-what game. The result is what the world saw on Nov. 23, with Pyongyang's unprovoked attack on sparsely populated Yeonpyeong Island. Two civilians and two South Korean marines were killed.
The publication of volumes of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks has raised a flutter in the press that perhaps China is of two minds about North Korea. It quotes the U.S. ambassador to Seoul quoting South Korea's then Vice Foreign Minister (now National Security Adviser) Chun Yung Woo, who quoted two unnamed Chinese officials as saying China would be fine with a reunified Korea under Seoul's stewardship in a "benign alliance" with the U.S. so long as it was not hostile to China. "The two officials," Chun said, were ready to " 'face the new reality' that the D.P.R.K. [North Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state." The WikiLeaks revelations also seem to show that Chinese officials mostly Foreign Ministry ones or think-tank "experts" can be as hopelessly wrong about what's happening in the North as anyone else.
Both points are undoubtedly true. Can Chinese Foreign Ministry officials be in the dark about whether North Korea plans to launch a nuclear test, just like everyone else in the outside world? No doubt. But it's important to understand that China's Foreign Ministry doesn't make big decisions when it comes to North Korea policy. It influences them, but it doesn't make them. That's left to Central Committee members, the international department of the Chinese Communist Party (wholly separate from the Foreign Ministry), the State Council (which oversees the Foreign Ministry) and high-ranking officers in the People's Liberation Army. (Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers died in the war in Korea that started 60 years ago.) How many of the real decisionmakers in China is the world hearing from, indirectly, in the WikiLeaks revelations? It's unclear, but it's probably not a lot.
So the fact that there are people in the foreign and economics ministries in Beijing, who deal with foreigners routinely and who do, in fact, get the point when it comes to North Korea, should not be overly reassuring. They're not running the country, at least not yet. A senior South Korean official who sat in Dai's meeting with Lee on Sunday a session that lasted two hours and 10 minutes said he got the sense that "the inner circle of the Chinese government does have some sort of concern or dilemma. They understand that this situation with North Korea can have a negative impact on China's national interest in the future." But if China were going to change its position on the North, Dai gave no hint of it, this source says. "China has not changed its official position."
Not yet, anyway. If they are in the process of doing so, they'll make their displeasure known to Pyongyang, and quickly. Chinese officials, as the WikiLeaks revelations make clear, can be in as much of a fog about decisionmaking in North Korea as anyone else, but don't confuse that with a lack of clout. Beijing remains Pyongyang's economic lifeline: North Korea is almost wholly reliant on China for energy supplies. From 2002 through 2007, Beijing's energy exports to Pyongyang more than tripled, from $118 million to $402 million. If China really wants to get Kim Jong Il's attention, it can. The question remains: Does it really want to?
With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul