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China Proposes a Three-Way Forum

Yesterday, Nikkei, the Japanese business news organization, reported that Beijing had proposed that China, Japan, and the United States hold regular high-level talks on matters of common interest, such as North Korea.  Is this a good idea?

We start with the general proposition that, given Beijing’s worldview, anything the Chinese propose cannot be advantageous for either the Japanese or us.  As an initial matter, the establishment of a permanent structure including the Chinese enhances their role in Asia.

The Bush administration has done much to bolster Beijing’s diplomacy by putting China at the center of multilateral attempts to disarm North Korea.  The Chinese used the six-party talks to promote dialogue but not a solution.  As a result, they have given the North Koreans the time to build nuclear devices and improve their long-range missiles.  When there has been progress in this forum—started in 2003—it has almost always been because American diplomats have informally sat down with their North Korean counterparts without the Chinese present.  China supplies 90 percent of the North’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food.  They are each other’s only military ally.  No other nation provides more diplomatic support to Pyongyang.  The Chinese cannot obtain the North Koreans’ cooperation or they do not want to.  Either conclusion shows that China is not a helpful diplomatic partner.  Consequently, it would be unwise to repeat our strategic mistakes by giving Beijing more clout than it deserves.

Moreover, the establishment of China’s three-way forum would exclude South Korea, a crucial American ally.  In Asia, the United States has strong alliances with Tokyo and Seoul.  The Japanese and South Koreans, however, have not established good ties between themselves.  South Korea’s outgoing president, Roh Moo-hyun, unfortunately, has stirred up lingering anti-Japanese resentment in an apparent attempt to strengthen his failing administration.  Tomorrow’s inauguration of his successor, Lee Myung-bak, will probably result in better ties between his government and Tokyo: earlier this month the pragmatic Lee signaled his desire to repair the damage Roh has caused.  So America should encourage this welcome trend and not accept Beijing’s plan, which can only drive wedges among Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul.  If the Bush administration promotes three-way discussions, it should encourage dialogue involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

So let’s stop promoting potential adversaries and start helping our friends.  Isn’t that what diplomacy is all about?


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