BEIJING: Fearing chaos on its borders, China has come to a new realization about the risk of nuclear weapons and war on the Korean Peninsula and launched its most significant diplomatic offensive in years to find a peaceful solution to the standoff, Chinese analysts and government officials said.

Since July, Chinese diplomats have been crisscrossing the globe in an attempt to secure a new meeting between officials from the United States and North Korea. That activity bore fruit on Thursday with the announcement that talks would be held Aug 27-29 in Beijing among North Korea, China, the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Despite the gulf separating the United States and North Korea, Chinese officials sounded upbeat on Friday.

“China is playing a constructive role in helping to bring the nuclear issue of the peninsula on to the track of a peaceful solution,” Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said after returning to Beijing from talks in Seoul and Tokyo. “And we are happy that we seem to enjoy full support of all the international community.”

China played a key role in persuading North Korea to shelve its opposition to multi-party talks and its insistence that only North Korea and the United States should negotiate, Chinese officials said. They added that Chinese interlocutors helped persuade the Bush administration to consider offering North Korea some type of security guarantee, which the administration had been loath to do.

Chinese officials and analysts said Beijing’s fresh efforts appear to be driven by several factors. China now generally accepts US intelligence suggesting that North Korea has nuclear devices, marking a significant change from last year when Chinese officials routinely questioned the quality of US information. One Chinese military officer noted that China now has more nuclear neighbours — Russia, India, Pakistan and potentially North Korea — than any country in the world.

Also, with the failure of the first round of talks between North Korea and the United States in April, also brokered by Beijing, China was forced to take a more active role in the region. China has a special relationship with North Korea; it lost one million men defending North Korea against the United States in the Korean War and today supplies 70 per cent of the country’s energy needs and much of its food. This role meant that China needed to get more deeply involved, Western diplomats said.

“China realized that if things got out of control, North Korea could go crazy and President Bush could go crazy, too,” said Chu Shulong, an expert in international security at Tsinghua University. “We saw danger on both sides.”

More broadly, experts say, China’s dynamism on this issue also reflects a deeper change in Chinese foreign policy. For years, China railed against the international political and economic system, calling for world revolution. It opposed almost all multilateral organizations, viewing them as platforms for China’s enemies to gang up on Beijing. But with its accession to the World Trade Organization, its seat on the UN Security Council and its participation in other international bodies, China has garnered considerable benefits from the system it once criticized.

China has helped start its own multilateral group, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, which includes China, Russia and several Central Asian states. In another breakthrough, that group has just finished its first joint military training exercises in Kazakhstan and China’s restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Hu Jintao became the first Chinese president to attend the Group of Eight summit in June. Just a few years ago, China lambasted the organization as a “rich man’s club.” Last October, Chinese negotiators began talks with NATO, once viewed here as a tool of American imperialism.

Another trigger for China’s change is the transformation in the global security environment after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Chinese officials and analysts said. Before Sept 11, China’s rise was viewed by many in the Bush administration as a nascent threat to American interests in Asia. Now such talk is muted as the United States concentrates on fighting terrorists, dealing with Iraq and other challenges.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Communist Party did not mention “opposing hegemonism,” code for the United States, in its party platform issued at the end of its 16th Congress, which ushered in new leadership last November. Shi Yinhong, an expert on international security issues at People’s University, said China’s position on the North Korean issue has evolved as the situation deteriorated following the April talks.

First, North Korea all but admitted it was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Then the Bush administration began making preparations for sanctions against North Korea, which Chinese officials believed could lead to war. Beijing opposed US plans to take the issue to the UN Security Council. China was also alarmed by Pentagon plans to redeploy US troops in South Korea away from the border.

Shi said China’s views on the issue have evolved considerably since the nuclear crisis erupted last October, when North Korean negotiators told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Pyongyang about North Korea’s secret nuclear programme.

Shi and others say China’s gambit is a risky one, especially in a political system that is so averse to risk-taking. However, China now realizes the prospect of a nuclear bomb on the Korean Peninsula is a real one and that it could trigger proliferation to neighbours such as Japan and South Korea, and even prompt Taiwan to resume a programme that the United States helped suppress in the 1970s.

“If there is success on the Korean Peninsula, China’s influence will rise all over northeast Asia,” Shi said. “Slowly, a more mature foreign policy is in the making here. China is undergoing an intensive learning process.” —Dawn/The LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.

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