By Peter Lee
The Barack Obama administration's policy of "strategic reassurance" vis-a-vis China appears to be yielding its first fruits - the profoundly unreassuring image of President Hu Jintao clasping Kim Jong-il's hand in Changchun and, very probably, heralding the survival of the sclerotic North Korean regime into its third generation.
This denouement should not have been unexpected as a riposte to the joint United States-South Korean strategy of responding to the Cheonan sinking in March with heightened rhetoric, referral of the issue to the United Nations, and a show of military force in Northeast Asian waters - all designed to challenge China's role as acknowledged stakeholder in matters of the peninsula.
China and North Korea set aside their many differences and presented a united front to the world on the future of the peninsula, effectively repudiating the US and South Korean formula of reunification in favor of the continued division of Korea.
Whether the US policy is remembered as a successful piece of brinksmanship, counter-productive provocation, or another sacrifice of the well-being and freedom of the North Korean people for the sake of vague and unattainable goals may well depend on the fate of another diplomatic initiative that is probably closer to Obama's heart: the high-stakes effort to roll back Iran's nuclear program.
Certainly, the tightened embrace between China and North Korea cannot be pleasing to Barack Obama or South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the near term.
A statement on China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website gave no satisfaction on the issue of the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, a piece of alleged egregious North Korean misbehavior that the US and South Korea still insist must be addressed before contacts can normalize.
Instead, the statement recorded a call for the resumption of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, a process that gives China a more central role than the US or South Korea or, for that matter, the North in better days, are eager to grant.
To rub salt in the wound, the Chinese side heaped praise on North Korea for its constructive approach to security on the peninsula (after blandly acknowledging the Cheonan uproar with the observation that "trends in a new direction emerged after the letter of the UN Security Council"):
The Chinese side respects and supports the positive efforts of the North Korean side in decreasing tensions on the peninsula and improving external conditions. It proposes that various parties uphold and preserve the banner of the stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and moderate the current tense situation by reopening the six-party talks as quickly as possible. 
However, what the US and South Korea undoubtedly focused on was the decision by the Chinese leadership to openly acknowledge the visit, dispatch Hu to meet with Kim, and give the trip the color of an official visit.
Though the statement in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement that Kim visited China "at the invitation of President Hu Jintao" might be dismissed as standard boilerplate, the fact remains that China decided to receive Kim's delegation and publicize the event.
Now that China has explicitly placed its Korean Peninsula eggs in Kim Jong-il's basket, the idea that Beijing would acquiesce to the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and reunification under the aegis of South Korea is a seriously discounted commodity.
For the time being, it appears that China has called South Korea's bluff. Lee Myung-bak quickly backed down, at least quasi-officially. Lee's remarks to his cabinet on Kim's visit were transmitted to the South Korean media by a government spokesperson:
"I positively evaluate that Chairman Kim frequents China," Lee said during a Cabinet meeting, according to presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung ... Lee was quoted as saying that Kim's repeated trip to China would have a positive influence on North Korea's economy as it would provide him with more opportunities to see China's economic development firsthand. "I see China's role positively as well," the president added. 
The rare revelation of Lee's remarks on Kim's China trip apparently aims to counter an impression that Seoul is blindly opposed to a gesture by Pyongyang and Beijing to cement their ties.
Beijing probably derived additional satisfaction from the Chosun Ilbo report entitled "Seoul Won't Insist on Cheonan Apology Before 6-Party Talks".
As a face-saving measure, discussions/accusations on the Cheonan sinking will apparently continue in parallel with the six-party talks:
[S]ome government officials expressed worries that Seoul could not stall the six-party talks indefinitely if Pyongyang and Beijing agree to give priority to them.
Foreign Ministry officials last Friday briefed Wu Dawei, the visiting Chinese chief nuclear negotiator, on Seoul's new position.
"Realistically, there is zero possibility of the North admitting its involvement in the Cheonan sinking and apologizing for it," a government official said. "But at the same time we can't just let it pass, which is what the North wants."
Instead, the Obama administration marked the occasion by announcing additional sanctions against North Korea.
Students of presidential power may find it interesting that the sanctions - indeed much of the edifice of unilateral sanctions against Iran and North Korea - are authorized under a 1994 Executive Order, No 12938, signed by president Bill Clinton. To continue to exercise this authority, every year the American president must certify that the United States is in a state of national emergency due to the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Obama issued the certification most recently on November 9, 2009, and will presumably extend the state of national emergency again later this year.
The executive order declaring a weapons of mass destruction state a national emergency is elastic enough to allow the United States to explicitly implace sanctions to interdict luxury goods such as "jewelry, luxury cars and yachts", in the words of Treasury Under Secretary Stuart Levey.
Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reported the judgment of the Obama administration's key Asian policy brain trust, the Center for a New American Security:
"I think the administration has got this right," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia security program at the Center for a New American Security, who said that naming companies from countries like China would have only invited trouble.
"They want to maximize the potential to put pressure on North Korea and at the same time not unnecessarily damage the rest of your interests. Smart sanctions here means getting specific with the entities that are doing the dirty dealing," he said.
Moreover, designating these entities as targets places them as a higher priority for intelligence gathering, which has its own intrinsic benefit, Cronin said.
"Sanctions don't have to 'work' to be useful,". 
China has not endorsed North Korean culpability for the Cheonan sinking, let alone implemented sanctions.
The only, faint hope for effective Chinese pressure on North Korea on America's behalf - and a sanctions regime that really "works" - would be the threat of US sanctions against Chinese banks and other businesses handling North Korean transactions.
And the United States has no interest in going there, at least for now.
It is possibly, as I've argued elsewhere, that the Obama administration is holding North Korea sanctions against China in reserve to compel Beijing's cooperation on Iran as needed.
Indeed, considering its full-throated demands for additional US sanctions against North Korea, the Lee Myung-bak government has been remarkably backward in supporting the key US foreign policy initiative - Iran sanctions.
The South Korean media reported  on August 27 that South Korea would probably institute merely "symbolic" sanctions against Iran - a remarkable statement for a staunch US ally, but an understandable one for an ally that suspects that the US commitment to North Korea sanctions is only conditional and situational.
But, when viewed strictly in the context of Korean affairs, the Obama administration appears to be folding as promptly as Lee Myung-bak.
But where does this leave China?
The Chinese leadership probably has some serious ambivalence about hitching its Korea wagon to the fate of the Kim family enterprise.
Circumstance, error, and mismanagement have combined to create an impoverished, repressive regime with dim long-term prospects.
The Kim family has always been resistant to Chinese economic tutelage.
Despite the apparent advantages of entering China's economic and political orbit, Pyongyang has always kept Beijing at arm's length and pursued independent diplomacy with the United States and South Korea.
Even as Kim Jong-il was in China, he was already laying the groundwork for playing off Washington and Seoul against Beijing. The regime released incarcerated US religious activist Aijalon Gomes to former US president Jimmy Carter, thereby signaling its desire for direct diplomatic engagement with the United States.
Washington and Seoul can take some consolation from the observation that China is "buying the same horse twice" - once again providing tangible support to the North Korean regime in exchange for promises that are usually honored in the breach or simply ignored.
The Chinese announcement of Kim Jong-il's visit was long on accolades for China's economic strengths and included the pointed statement that the people's livelihood must be ensured and economies, in order to grow, cannot avoid "outside cooperation" even when based on the principle of economic self-reliance.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Global Times ran a prominent non-story on the possibility that a border province of North Korea might hold an international trade fair next year:
The government of Kimchuk, North Korea may plan a trade fair next year and all the countries will be welcomed to participate, said Yi Bok-il, the committee head of Kimchuk Municipal People's Committee of North Korea, after the opening ceremony of the 6th China Yanji Tumen River Area International Fair for Investment & Trade 2010, held Saturday in Yanji, Jilin province.Global Times supplied the requisite grain of salt:
Yi told the Global Times that it is the first time that Kimchuk took part in such economic activities and via the trade fair, the city aims to promote economic communication and trade cooperation with China and other countries in Northeast Asia.
However, experts show some reservations on the depth of North Korea's involvement in the economic development of Northeast Asia.Nevertheless, it can be seen from Lee Myung-bak's remarks to his cabinet that China's economic clout - and its possible willingness to deploy it on behalf of North Korea - has emerged as a wild card in Korean affairs.
"Given the uncertainties of North Korea's domestic political and economic orientation in the future, it is still hard to project an over-optimistic estimate of the country's contribution to the economic cooperation to the pan-Northeast Asian area," Yu Xiao, deputy director of Center for Northeast Asia Studies of Jilin University, told the Global Times. 
If the North can avoid its severe blundering and integrate with the Chinese economic powerhouse, it would go a long way toward ensuring its survival, frustrating the push for reunification, and providing China with a secure and militarily insignificant buffer on its border.
The Obama administration is ill-equipped to deal with this state of affairs.
The Obama administration has a remarkable tin ear when it comes to China policy. Its norms-based foreign policy strategy - based on rules and priorities such as democracy, non-proliferation, human rights, and US led security condominiums for which China has little sympathy - offers little opportunity for productive engagement.
James Mann got it right in the title of his article for The New Republic, ''Does China Have Any Friends Left in the Obama Administration?'' 
Unfortunately, he got it wrong in the body of his article, in which he blamed the situation on China's poor people skills.
The problem is that the Obama administration finds it hard to acknowledge that China has legitimate interests that the United States - in the face of its own myriad economic, political and security challenges - should be obliged to respect, even as it tries to dig itself out of its geopolitical hole.
In encouraging China to follow US sanctions policy on Iran and put its Iranian natural gas, petroleum and gasoline business at risk, sanctions czar Robert Einhorn snidely stated that China was "overachieving" in its energy security - an observation that China certainly would not endorse.
As for North Korea, that a communist regime could have a legitimate interest in the continued survival of one of the most repressive regimes on earth is a concept that the US has an understandable difficulty in accepting even in the best of times.
And this is not the best of times.
Today, the Chinese resentment at US posturing on North Korea is exacerbated by the perception that the United States is trying to reassert its position in Asia on the cheap, by declaring and fomenting security crises to exploit the differences between China and its smaller neighbors - primarily South Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
The director of US studies at a Chinese think-tank laid out a Chinese view of US options - while carefully observing that Obama has yet to choose between the two:
There will be two options for the US. The first is to act as if they have come out better from the recent clashes, to conclude that China understands force better than soft words, and to alter US global strategy to a more confrontational approach toward China.That the US containment policy against China is underpowered, equivocal and reliant on ambivalent front-line countries with strong economic ties to Beijing doesn't make it less odious to China.
The second is to see such a course as incompatible with US interests and instead attempt to pursue a win-win situation by gradually adapting to China's rise.
Clearly, the first option is a dead end. Although the US has incredible might and a number of temporary allies, it cannot constrain China, given how closely globalization has bound the two nations' interests together.
Besides, China also has the ability and confidence to effectively carry out counter-measures against the US in a number of critical areas. Although the latter option is unprecedented, it is an inevitable requirement for the new era. 
What might make the difference this time is China's growing assertiveness, and its sense that the Korean Peninsula is a matter of its key national interest - and it is ready to roll the dice once more on behalf of the Kim Jong-il regime and push the North toward economic and political viability.
United States opinion seems ill-prepared for the possibility that the Obama administration has been injudicious in its choice of enemies, issues and tactics.
Under the title ''Obama sanctions on North Korea are also aimed at China'', The Christian Science Monitor approvingly editorialized on August 31:
Obama's new sanctions were likely aimed at Beijing as much as at the regime of Kim Jong-il. They may be part of a larger Obama strategy to stand up to China as it tries to dominate Asia with its expanding economic and naval might. The Korean Peninsula, as it was during the cold war, could once again become a proxy battleground for a larger struggle between China and the US. ... Obama is playing a game of chicken in Asia right now ...Judging from the Hu Jintao/Kim Jong-il handshake in Changchun - and Hu's remark that "the timely, sufficient and in-depth strategic interface between China and he Democratic People's Republic of Korea must be strengthened", the Monitor got its answer before the virtual ink was dry on its editorial.
Within days, the world may find out if his risky move will pay off. 
1. Click here for text (in Chinese).
2. Lee views NK leader's China trip positively, Yonhap News Agency, Aug 31, 2010.
3. Seoul Won't Insist on Cheonan Apology Before 6-Party Talks, Chosun Ilbo, Aug 30, 2010.
4. Obama goes after Kim Jong Il's creature comforts, Foreign Policy, Aug 30, 2010.
5. Korea's Iran sanctions may end up at 'symbolic' level, The Korea Times, Aug 27, 2010.
6. North Korea active in promoting trade in Northeast Asia, Global Times, Aug 28, 2010.
7. Does China Have Any Friends Left in the Obama Administration?, The New Republic, Aug 26, 2010.
8. Sino-US confrontation nothing but a dead end, Global Times, Aug 29, 2010.
9. Obama sanctions on North Korea are also aimed at China, The Christian Science Monitor, Aug 31, 2010.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.
By Jens Kastner and Wang Jyh-Perng
TAIPEI - In the past 12 months, the world's military journals have been awash with analyses of the power balance in the West Pacific possibly tilting in China's favor. Pundits and reporters proclaim in unison that Beijing is about to achieve its goal of making United States military interventions in future conflicts fought out in the Yellow, the East China or South China Seas a very difficult, if not impossible, mission.
Most think-tanks see Washington's democratic allies in the region as being threatened by China's boosted reconnaissance abilities, its submarine fleet and a growing arsenal of cruise and tactical missiles.
Yet, among all of Beijing's options to challenge US naval supremacy, the weapon that sends chills down China's opponents' spines is what is regarded as a Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapon, the Dong Feng 21D, the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile. If the assessments of observers prove correct, China's wonder weapon is to make its way into history books - with it, China would be able to take on the US Navy's aircraft carriers, the pride of the US military.
The outcome of a simulation published by Orbis, an American journal on international relations and US foreign policy, clearly did its job in making military circles uneasy. After a hit by a Dong Feng 21D, it took the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS George Washington a mere 20 minutes to sink.
The DF-21D, as the missile is commonly called, is a modification of a solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile that China has been working on since the late 1960s. The newest version, also going under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reporting name CSS-5 Mod-4, is believed to come with the unique feature that it can target a moving aircraft carrier as far away as 3,000 kilometers from a land-based mobile launcher.
Enabled by this new weapon, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) hopes to gain the option to control the West Pacific from land, as opposed to engaging with the US Navy in sea battles that China would be unlikely to win. If the DF-21D is really as sophisticated as has been widely speculated, the US would have to risk its neck when coming to South Korea's, Japan's or Taiwan's aid in the event of Chinese military aggression.
It can safely be assumed that a fair portion of Washington's military strategies would be rendered useless it the US were to lose the ability to securely travel anywhere using aircraft carriers from which jet fighters start their devastatingly precise bombing campaigns - as has been seen in the wars against Serbia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Like the DF-21D's earliest predecessor, the German V-2, a long-range World War II ballistic missile that the Nazis called a Wunderwaffe, China's anti-ship ballistic missile remains shrouded in mystery. Military experts from Washington to Taipei have been left guessing its exact capabilities. It is suggested that the missile's high-angle re-entry into the atmosphere, as well as its speed, make it almost impossible to defend against.
What further worries American defense analysts is that the Chinese apparently have the advantage of being able to screw on almost anything that's found in the PLA's warhead arsenals, such as HEAT shells, which are extremely efficient at penetrating steel, as well as cluster bombs, which eject smaller sub-munitions.
The Chinese could even destroy their opponents' electronic control systems - critical to the operation of ground vehicles and aircraft - by producing damaging current and voltage surges with the help of electromagnetic pulse bombs loaded into the DF-21D. Yet another option would be to fit a missile with a thermobaric fuel-air bomb. This warhead produces a blast wave of a very long duration, a feature that is useful in military applications where the attacker aims to increase the number of casualties and cause greater damage to infrastructure.
As a strong indication of how serious the US sees the threat of China's missiles, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently lamented that the DF-21D "has the ability to disrupt [American] freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options".
Among others, Taiwan has reason to be most concerned about China's apparent potential to deter US carriers from entering the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea. The island is home to some of the world's most accomplished scholars who dedicate their careers to monitoring and researching China's security policy.
One of these is Professor Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China Politics Division at Taiwan's National Chengchi University. Apart from this assignment, he also holds the position of a professor at the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taipei. Ding spoke to Asia Times Online on the DF-21D.
Asia Times Online: The DF-21D can strike US aircraft carriers and sink them in a very short time. Will this development have an impact on the naval balance in the East China Sea?
Arthur Ding: This is the ultimate goal China aims to achieve. But technically speaking, it's not feasible. That is because when the missile re-enters the atmosphere, its speed would be somewhere around Mach 7 [2,382.03 meters/second]. That is so fast that there would not be sufficient time to re-direct the warhead to hit an US aircraft carrier precisely. A carrier could only be hit indirectly by a special warhead, such as a fuel-air explosive.
AToL: How will the DF-21D affect Taiwan's security situation?
AD: There's no doubt that China's military modernization does increase the risk for US involvement. Nevertheless, aircraft carriers are unlikely to be the only instruments the US will have at hand. As time goes by, many more weapons may be developed. If this is the case, China will be frustrated and disappointed if it's only focusing on scenarios involving aircraft carriers. Thus, the DF-21D mainly serves as a psychological deterrent for the US....