Pyongyang's choice of July 4th to launch a much-anticipated and roundly discouraged test of its long-range missile capabilities, (despite having failed rather spectacularly in the first minute after launch) will go down in history as one of the more flagrant recent attempts to goad and humiliate the superpower.
But this time there's a twist. While the timing is unquestionably meant to provoke Washington, the move ought to attract roughly equal ire in Beijing. First off, China now chairs the six-party talks aimed at controlling North Korea's nuclear program. The test thus marks the failure of Beijing's highest-stakes diplomatic gambit yet in their own rise to great-power status.
Moreover, the Chinese have, laudably, been working assiduously in recent weeks to avert the missile launch. It was reported on Sunday that the Chinese were looking to reconvene an informal session of the six-party forum later this month. Just yesterday China and North Korea jointly announced a planned exchange of high-level visits to, among other things, discuss the threatened missile launch. For Kim Jong Il to have proceeded in the face of ongoing Chinese diplomatic efforts is at least as much a slap in the face to Beijing as to the US.
Apart from misery loving company, what's the significance of China being just as dissed as we are? It's impossible to say, but a few musings:
- It's quite possible that it may make China think twice about sticking its neck out for diplomatic gambits, though their hunger for resources and influence in Asia and beyond suggests that they may rather redouble efforts to exert their will in the region, with uncertain results for the Pyongyang regime. One possibility is China stepping up diplomatic efforts behind the scenes, but pushing others to front for them;
- This may ease some of the criticism of Washington for refusing to engage in direct talks with North Korea and otherwise failing to contain the regime's aspirations for a nuclear arsenal. After all, Beijing was willing to talk to Pyongyang one-on-one, yet seems to have had no more influence than we did;
- Maybe China and, indirectly, some of its supporters in the developing world, gain just a tad more understanding of the challenges a superpower faces in trying to contain fundamentally uncontrollable threats. We've made serious mistakes in recent years in dealing with foreign policy challenges and our own actions have compounded others' mistrust of our motives. With that said, we also face inherent resentment by dint of our superpower status. Much of the world has only a dim appreciation for what its like to be the capital where the buck stops on just about every matter of international security.
The reason for engaging the Chinese heavily in the 6-party process was the hope that they would understand how to influence North Korea. At least for now, what they will understand instead is how it feels to fail to do so.