WASHINGTON — Does China really have any influence over North Korea? Now that the North Koreans have begun to menace their neighbors with a new missile, it's long past time for the Clinton administration to find out.
The answer is important not only to America, but also to its Asian allies and to China itself. For if North Korea keeps firing these Taepodong missiles, the result could well be a development that China has been trying to prevent: the construction of an American-sponsored missile-defense system in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Over the last few years, the Clinton administration has operated on the assumption that China has some sway over the North Koreans, which it uses once in a while in ways that help the United States. When President Clinton and his aides talk about the ways in which China cooperates with the United States on foreign policy, the Korean Peninsula is often at the top of their list.
"China has helped us to convince North Korea to freeze and ultimately end its dangerous nuclear program," Clinton proclaimed last October in a speech defending his policy of engagement with China.
Oddly enough, the Clinton administration gives China more credit for swaying North Korea than the Chinese government claims for itself. Chinese officials regularly maintain that they have little influence over the actions of North Korea or its leader, Kim Jong II.
China always has nice words for North Korea that tell little about the two countries' underlying relationship. Typically, a Chinese spokesman said Tuesday that his government hoped the North Korean people "will continue to achieve victories in the process of building socialism with Korean characteristics."
In Washington, some of China's critics have been suggesting that perhaps China played a supporting role in the North Korean missile test. As evidence, they note that Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, China's chief of military intelligence, visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang Aug. 3. That was four weeks before North Korea tested the new two-stage missile, one part of which crossed over Japan's main island and landed in the Pacific Ocean.
But the idea that China encouraged the North Korean test is implausible, for several reasons.
In mid-August, Xiong also traveled to South Korea, the highest-ranking Chinese military official ever to visit that country. It seems unlikely that China would have wanted to jeopardize its budding military ties with the South by having North Korea launch a missile so soon after Xiong left Seoul. More likely, the Chinese general went to North Korea to smooth things over before his unprecedented sojourn to the South.
More broadly, it doesn't seem as though North Korea's missile test was something the Chinese would want. "It is very much against China's own interests," observed James R. Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to both South Korea and China.
Why? Because behind the scenes, China has been trying hard to head off the construction of a missile-defense system near its territory. For several years, this has been one of the most sensitive issues between China and other governments, including the United States and Japan.
In 1996, when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole proposed deploying missile-defense systems in Asia, Chinese officials reacted angrily. Indeed, Dole's proposal was one of the main reasons for China's decision that year to forge warmer ties with the Clinton administration.
China has kept up its campaign ever since. One of the hidden subplots of Clinton's visit to China last summer, for example, was a secret round of negotiations concerning missile defenses.
Chinese officials tried unsuccessfully to win a promise from the Clinton administration that there would be no such systems constructed for the defense of Taiwan. The Clinton administration wouldn't go as far as China wanted. It offered to say only that there were no "plans" for such a system--a pledge so full of loopholes that the Chinese turned it down.
Now, the North Korean missile test has dramatized the vulnerability of East Asian countries to a missile attack--and, from China's point of view, it has come at the worst possible time.
Japan is nearing a decision on whether to include funds in next year's budget to start joint research with the United States on a missile defense program. The North Korean missile test could help Japan overcome its qualms about the high costs of the anti-missile program and its fears of incurring China's wrath if it signed up for the project.
Until now, Chinese officials have played a coy little game when it comes to North Korea. "They will play at best a cheerleading role for those who want to curb North Korean activities," explained Jonathan Pollack, a specialist on Asia at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "But they will let others do the heavy lifting."
It's time to end this little charade. China is North Korea's main outside supplier of food and energy. When the North Koreans start lobbing missiles around Asia, it seems fair to ask China to take a leading role in stopping such dangerous activity.
Either China has clout in North Korea or it doesn't. If it does, now is the time to use it. If not, then one of the justifications for the Clinton administration's China policy--that Beijing plays a helpful role in restraining North Korea--will be shown to be meaningless.
Which is it?
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.