The Chinese checkers

IN VERY important negotiations, the Chinese tend to work things in a manner different from the West. Their diplomats generally dislike framing positions in an edgy, confrontational, take-it-or leave-it style.

By Tom Plate

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Published: Wed 21 Sep 2005, 9:49 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:26 PM

That approach strikes them as too risky. They tend to process an initial rebuff or outright rejection as engendering a loss of face, especially if they are committed to the negotiating framework. Let us not forget the Six Party Talks were China’s idea and they have been hosted in Beijing.

Accordingly, in a negotiation of consequence, they will shy away from public blustering. Their style is more that of a slow moving mafia boss who declines crude threats but instead works to suffuse the atmosphere with a humidity of both open empathy (eg, yes, we understand that the imperialists are evil? and subtle pressure (even so, what better resolution can there be than what continued talks could produce?)

In truth, the Chinese government of Hu Jintao has consciously (and profitably) prioritised ‘businesslike’ (this adjective with precise intent here) relations with the United States. Failure of the talks with North Korea was not China’s preferred option by far, and the North Koreans, who have been partly dependent on China for energy and other aid, knew that.

The Chinese thus calculated that a grinding passage of time would eventually expose both the United States and North Korea to the obvious hopelessness and pointlessness of moving toward any position other than one of imperative mutual compromise. The Bush administration, with its hands-full in Baghdad (not to mention in New Orleans), and recently confronted with a bristling hard-line from the new Iranian president regarding the nuclear-issue, finally faced the bitter music of reality. So did North Korea. Or so it would appear, at least for the time being.

The agreement of principle, announced in Beijing, is not by any means final, it is susceptible to unravelling, and even to future misunderstanding. But it is breathtakingly simple: It pledges the North Koreans to return to the nuclear-free sanctity of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it pledges the US (as well as China, Russia, Japan and South Korea) to respect North Korea’s sovereignty, to help rebuild its economy and to accept in principle the right of any sovereign nation to develop peaceful nuclear energy at an appropriate time. The Six Party Talks have reached this new plateau of potential for a number of reasons. The first is that the agreement is in every party’s national interest. North Korea needs lots of aid and China wasn’t about to provide any more of it —especially if Pyongyang, the capital of the formally titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was about to trigger an unwanted nuclear arms race in East Asia by developing its own nuclear arsenal.

For its part, the Bush administration needed a major diplomatic victory and not another war zone. The Russians have relatively good relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang and want to keep it that way. As for the Chinese, they were near-masterful, walking both sides of the North Korean-American line without tipping over or tripping up. They took an exposed position, but apparently never lost complete patience with either Pyongyang or Washington. Their even-handed, plodding determination won the open respect of Seoul and the grudging respect of the Japanese.

And as for Japan itself, the agreement is in its national interest as well. The prospect of a potentially permanent non-nuclear Korean peninsula would allow the Japanese to breathe easier —for obvious reasons. Note that former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, in a past interview with the Los Angeles based journal New Perspective Quarterly in October 2003, had predicted that a nuclear deal with the North Koreans was wholly achievable —and he predicted it to happen within two years.

Christopher Hill, a career diplomat, was America’s key negotiator at the Beijing talks. One has the hunch that the Chinese in particular appreciated his low-key, self-effacing style —characteristics not always associated with Americans. Successful negotiations are almost always the result of a rational, almost computer-like assessment of national interests, but inevitably there is always the human factor; the sum of the talents of all the negotiators involved. In Hill the US may have struck gold.

This is to take nothing at all away from the other national negotiators assembled in Beijing. The Six Party Talks have been a tortuous, tangled and oft-unpleasant negotiation from the start. There are still miles to go. If an implementation protocol can be pounded out, this greatly desired outcome will be in part a tribute to the professionalism of all the national representatives assembled in Beijing.

Prof. Tom Plate is a veteran US journalist who has worked at Time, New York Times, Newsday and The Los Angeles Times

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