Chris McNally: North Korea Talks Show China Wants Central Role in Northeast Asia Security

Date: 02-15-2004

HONOLULU (Feb. 15) -- Beijing's leadership in hosting six-party talks on North Korea next week indicates that China intends to be a principal player in a future Northeast Asian security forum, an East-West Center China specialist said.

While the second round of talks on Feb. 25 is unlikely to result in a conclusive resolution, perhaps just as importantly, the talks symbolize a more active and engaging Chinese role in Northeast Asia, said Chris McNally, a research fellow at the East-West Center. Over the past few years China has for the first time started to take multilateral initiatives.

"Regardless of how the Beijing talks proceed, they signify deep and significant changes in Northeast Asia's security order," McNally said. After witnessing two and a half decades of stunning economic growth, "China's political and economic weight is starting to be felt across Asia. As a result, all Asian nations are rebalancing their foreign policies in subtle but significant ways.

"Beijing sees it now in its interest to project a more benign external image, both to attract more capital and to assure others that its growing economic and political weight will not harm them," McNally noted. "Put differently, China is becoming a status quo power that sees the stability of the present international system in its interest."

As a result, McNally said, China's pre-eminent security interests are served by conflict avoidance, multilateral cooperation, and ultimately, a stable and accommodating relationship with the United States.

China's new diplomatic and economic initiatives began with engaging Southeast Asia and now include the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. Beijing's considerable effort to convene the first talks in August 2003 brought together a reluctant North Korea with the major stakeholders in the region -- the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China. Symbolic of China's seriousness about these talks, McNally pointed out, was the special hexagonal table Beijing officials built to accommodate all six parties.

McNally said the much more active moves on the part of Chinese foreign policy are only in part driven by international events such as global realignments in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Predominantly, China's new interest for an engaging and constructive foreign policy must be seen as a product of the country's stunning domestic transformation and economic growth.

China's trade to GDP ratio is now around 49 percent, extremely high for a continental-sized economy. At the same time, China is attracting the largest amount of foreign direct investment in the world. The result of this situation is that Chinese leaders must continue to create an internal and external environment conducive to capital accumulation

"China is being empowered because it has become highly competitive globally," McNally said.

"These developments are imbuing the Chinese leadership with newfound confidence."

Chris McNally can be reached at (808) 944-7239 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center