TOKYO -- A string of important high-level meetings in the past several days offered the leaders of Northeast Asia a chance to develop a common understanding on how to manage the crisis stemming from the alleged North Korean sinking of a South Korean ship in March.
But while Japan and South Korea signaled solidarity on efforts to condemn and punish North Korea, China reverted to a familiar noncommittal tone. Clearly, China continues to see its interests in the region differently than Japan and South Korea when it comes to the difficult question of how to contain an increasingly unpredictable Pyongyang. And that spells difficult times ahead for the diplomatic process at a time of mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea met on May 29-30 on the island of Cheju, South Korea, for their third summit meeting to discuss the region's agenda. From the outset, it was clear that South Korea and Tokyo would take a united stand in condemnation of the sinking. On May 29, Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak exchanged compliments over each nation's response to the sinking of the Cheonan. Hatoyama promised continued support and announced the Japanese parliament's passage of stronger legislation allowing the inspection of cargo ships as well as fuller restrictions on the flow of money and goods to North Korea.
Press reports quoted Hatoyama as saying during the trilateral summit meetings that if Japan was attacked, he would have a difficult time containing the Japanese reaction. This should be viewed as a signal to China that South Korea's restraint thus far, while greatly respected, should not be assumed to be the norm for other regional actors.
The broader conversation with China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, produced no joint statement on the way forward in generating a discussion on North Korea in the UN Security Council, which South Korea wants. Rather, the Chinese premier restated his country's call for calm resolution of the issue.
Wen travelled to Tokyo on May 31 after the trilateral regional summit, and again spent his time there advocating the need to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula. In an interview with the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Wen suggested that there might be those wanting to escalate tensions, and he warned against this. Compared to his last visit to Japan in 2008, when he was more exuberant about the bilateral relationship, China's premier was subdued in his discussion of how Japan and China might shape their future.
China's leader did bring the long-sought offer of concluding an agreement for joint exploration of the East China Sea, agreed upon at a bilateral summit in 2008 but not pursued because of opposition within China.
But on the matter of security in the region, where China is believed to hold the most leverage over the erratic North Korean regime, the results of the weekend summits are disappointing. Prospects for meaningful new pressure on Pyongyang from China or through the UN are low, and an opportunity for substantive shift in regional policy during the weekend was lost.