International issues are rarely of the black-and-white variety. When the rare issue of this type comes along, it presents an opportunity not to be wasted. The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan fits this description.
On March 26 a mysterious explosion broke the Cheonan in two, causing it to sink, killing 46 sailors. An investigation involving experts from South Korea, Australia, Sweden, the UK, and the US was convened to determine the cause of the explosion. The team determined that a torpedo caused the explosion. Furthermore, they found that:
These findings weren't unexpected. Independent analysts looking at the pictures of the vessel taken after its recovery from the sea floor had identified the damage as being consistent with that caused by torpedoes.
The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.
No one has seriously questioned this evidence, though North Korea did (predictably) accuse the South of "foolishly seeking to link the accident with the north at any cost." But more importantly, China has not publicly questioned the experts' conclusions, saying only that all sides should remain calm in the wake of the "unfortunate" incident.
In fact, China has studiously avoided saying much of anything about the issue, except that it was conducting its own "assessment" of what had happened to the Cheonan.
Why wouldn't China take a stronger stand when faced with such strong evidence? As a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder points out:
China's support for Pyongyang ensures a friendly nation on its northeastern border, as well as provides a buffer zone between China and democratic South Korea, which is home to around twenty-nine thousand U.S. troops and marines. This allows China to reduce its military deployment in its northeast...
China clearly has some interest in keeping the North Korean regime around. However, those who would rather that the regime disappear have an equally important interest in changing China's mind. This is for the simple reason that North Korea is more dependent than ever before on Chinese aid. After sanctions were tightened in 2006 and again in 2009 (after the North's two nuclear weapon tests), the North's aid from and trade with countries other than China has fallen off. Trade with the South was its other major source of income, and with both South and North Korea announcing their intentions to sever bilateral ties, this number is likely to plummet.
America has given China several opportunities to demonstrate that it stands with the responsible members of the global community, including during the recent visit by Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Geithner. China will get another chance when Prime Minister Wen heads to Seoul on Friday.
If it fails to take this chance to make the morally obvious choice, the U.S. should force China's hand. The biggest stage on which to do this would be in the U.N. Security Council. As one of the Council's five permanent members, China can veto substantive resolutions, but on procedural matters (like whether to bring a resolution to a vote) no single country has veto power.
Forcing China to choose whether to veto, abstain, or approve a resolution condemning North Korea's actions would signify a choice between being a responsible world power or covering up a blatant act of war. Even an abstention would speak volumes about China's willingness to step up when it counts. The stakes would be raised even further by the fact that, again according to the Security Council's rules of procedure, both North and South Korea would have the right to be in the Council during the vote.
There will no doubt be analysts who oppose this tactic on the grounds that embarrassing China into a choice of this sort would be counterproductive, given our reliance on them for support on other issues. But if the timing is right (after a vote on sanctioning Iran), and the resolution is short and sweet, the black-and-white nature of this incident will dominate the analysis. Taking a stand against unprovoked acts of war ought to be the bare minimum required of a country that appears to aspire to global leadership. If China chooses to retaliate by withdrawing support for other issues, its reputation will only diminish further.
North Korea's attack on its neighbor to the south was an outrage. Despite the North's attempt to cover its tracks, no one has seriously disputed that is was responsible. China's support for North Korea has costs, but the administration can't expose these costs by slow-playing its hand. China shouldn't get a free pass if it wants to cover up for its rogue ally. It must be made to choose between responsibility and criminality.