Asia-Pacific, Global Geopolitics, Global Governance, Globalisation, Headlines

POLITICS: Defiant China Asserts Role in Global Affairs

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - The symbolism of Beijing dispatching its second top leader for celebrations with the reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il almost at the same time as Washington was deciding to break a tradition by refusing the Dalai Lama a meeting with the U.S. President last week has not been lost on observers here — keen to glimpse ever more signs of China’s rise.

“It is the first time in 18 years that the Dalai Lama has not been awarded his meeting with the U.S. President – undoubtedly a powerful symbolic precedent,” said a commentary in the ‘Nanfang Daily’ last week.

“It is all due to China’s rising role in global affairs,” the commentary went further. “The world needs China more and more and the United States — if it wants to exercise its leverage — needs China too. Compared to this, Dalai Lama’s begging around the world seems much less important.”

Observers say U.S. President Barack Obama needs to secure China’s support on a range of critical international issues, including resolving North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Travelling to Beijing in November for his first state visit to the communist state, he is said to have preferred postponing meeting Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader until after his talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Beijing has long decried the Dalai Lama’s tours of world capitals, promoting Tibet’s independence cause.

Ironically, as much as the United States was seen kowtowing to Beijing in this sensitive time ahead of Obama’s China visit, Beijing had been depicted as standing by its long-term friend and daring to defy international opinion.

The day after China stirred sentiments with its impressive show of military power at the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist republic, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao flew to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. He attended lavish celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

His visit was full of symbolic activities, underscoring the long friendship between the two neighbours, once close ideological allies. Wen paid tribute to the Chinese soldiers killed in the Korean War at a cemetery east of Pyongyang, rekindling memories of the conflict with the United States, which saw China going to extraordinary lengths to back its communist neighbour.

Chinese web users generated scores of postings supporting Wen’s visit to the North. “It must be a huge encouragement for North Korea that, when the whole world is isolating them, our premier is there to give them hope,” said one comment on the popular Internet forum ‘Tianya’.

What is more, Wen Jiabao promised the North’s reclusive leader aid and further political support in the international arena. North Korea launched a series of missiles and conducted an underground nuclear test earlier this year, drawing sanctions by the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council resolution has banned support to the North except for humanitarian purposes.

Nevertheless, during his meeting with Kim Jong-il, Wen was reported to have agreed to assume the costs of a new bridge to be constructed over the Yalu River, which divides China and North Korea. The two sides have also reportedly reached agreements on cooperating in education and tourism, with China providing grants worth an estimated 200 million U.S. dollars.

The leaders of South Korea and Japan have expressed concerns that the aid promised by China may violate the existing U.N. sanctions. On Friday President Lee Myung-bak and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said international sanctions against North Korea should remain in place until “specific action” had been taken over its nuclear programme.

Both leaders were in Beijing over the weekend for meetings with the Chinese premier. North Korea’s aid featured prominently at their summit. President Lee told reporters the countries had agreed on the “need for a fundamental and comprehensive solution” to the nuclear issue.

The two leaders have agreed to offer North Korea a one-off package of aid in exchange for denuclearisation, instead of the step-by-step measures that have been followed since the denuclearisation talks began back in 2003.

North Korea pulled out of the talks in April. During Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, Pyongyang indicated that it might return to multi-party talks on the nuclear issue, but added it wanted direct negotiations with the U.S. first. The six-party talks include delegates from the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.

As the North’s biggest trading partner and staunch political ally, China is seen as a key player in bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. But observers warn that the United States might not be that keen to hold direct talks with Kim Jong-il.

Li Kaisheng, international relations expert at Xiangtan University in Hunan province, said the bilateral talks clash with the U.S.’s hidden intention of keeping a rising China in check.

“As soon as the United States establishes official ties with North Korea, it will have to face the challenge of terminating the Cold war arrangements on the peninsula and withdrawing its troops — which it doesn’t want to do,” Li wrote in his column posted on

After winning the Nobel Peace prize Friday for his peace-making efforts and promises to build a world free of nuclear weapons, U.S. President Obama is under even greater pressure to deliver on high expectations about his administration.

Activists have already called on Obama to push for the protection of human rights defenders worldwide. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international rights group, said Obama should push for a vigorous public discussion of Tibet during his Beijing visit.

“As a Nobel laureate, President Obama has a special responsibility to speak up for activists jailed and persecuted for promoting human rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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