Almost two weeks have passed since the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) exchanged fire. Now the US is trying to exert more pressure on China to "rein in" the DPRK. It is even accusing China of "enabling" the DPRK to start a uranium-enrichment program and launch attacks on the ROK.
A Japanese newspaper reported on Monday that Japan would identify the DPRK as a threat and China's military activities a concern in its National Defense Program Guideline update.
Top diplomats from the ROK and Japan are headed for Washington for trilateral talks on Monday, meaning that the three countries are laying aside the possibility of Six-Party Talks and trying to solve the problem through their one-sided plan. This reflects a policy change for the three countries after assuming the DPRK has indeed nuclear weapons.
China should be alert to the ongoing Korean Peninsula crisis. It's the first time the ROK, Japan and the US that have trilateral military cooperation. The US now is strengthening its military presence in East Asia by portraying China as the DPRK's "ally".
The situation on the peninsula is worrying and becoming more complicated, as the untoward exchange of fire, together with the Cheonan incident in March, has brought about deep structural changes on the Korean Peninsula.
Most striking is the change in the ROK's internal politics, where the "sunshine policy" has lost public support. When Lee Myung-bak, who is opposed to the "sunshine policy", won the general election in the ROK in 2007, many people considered it to be a somewhat usual political cycle. But after the two incidents most people in the ROK considered the "sunshine policy" a failure that could not alter the zero-sum-game between Pyongyang and Seoul.
According to an opinion poll, about 70 percent of the people in the ROK now support a tough policy toward the DPRK, and some political figures who earlier favored the "sunshine policy" have changed their stance. The "Cold War" atmosphere seems to have returned to the country.
With both sides sticking to their tough policies, the danger of confrontation has increased greatly. In the past, the DPRK threatened to launch a "total war", "nuclear war" or "set Seoul on fire" to vent its anger at the way it had been treated by the ROK, the US and Japan, while the ROK insisted on giving a tit-for-tat reply. But this time, the situation seems to be different. The ROK has changed its defense secretary and adopted a new policy of revenge. The joint ROK-US military exercise immediately after the exchange of fire is a silent testimony to Seoul's determination.
It's true, neither side wants a war, but with little buffer space for leaders of the DPRK and the ROK, the danger of a military conflict is increasing.
Political pressure at critical points may lead to unexpected conflicts. With the US and the ROK consolidating their alliance, a new "Cold War" mentality may return to East Asia. With joint military drills, military cooperation among the US, the ROK and Japan is becoming a reality. The three countries' political alliance is being strengthened, too, with their intensifying coordination on foreign affairs.
In direct contrast is the souring of relations between the three countries and China.
The ROK is unhappy with China's reaction to the Cheonan incident and the exchange of fire, while the US-ROK military drill in the Yellow Sea has hurt Sino-US relations. In the mean time, the DPRK leader has visited China twice, emphasizing friendship and mutual cooperation. However, if two alliances form in East Aisa, it won't benefit any country. Especially the US and China should avoid confrontation because of some other countries' conflicts.
The possibility of a peaceful resolution to the DPRK nuclear issue has decreased with the stalling of the Six-Party Talks. Only when all the sides believe that that peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is possible can they return to the talks.
In fact, the situation began worsening in 2009, when the ROK and the DPRK adopted tough positions. After conducting the long-range missile and nuclear tests, the DPRK tried to improve relations with the other sides through active diplomacy, but the US, the ROK and Japan insisted on linking assistance with denuclearization. It became impossible to avoid a stand-off because none of them was ready to compromise.
The developments have put China in an awkward position as the host country of the Six-Party Talks. Its proposal of holding a six-party emergency meeting has been interpreted as partisan by the US, the ROK and Japan, even though all China is pursuing is peace and stability through shuttle diplomacy.
China has got impressive diplomatic achievements to boast of during its 30 years of reform and opening-up. In a sense, it is Deng Xiaoping's guideline of "hide brightness, nourish obscurity" that saved a lot of trouble for China and won it many friends. Deng believed in no alliance, no ideological group. For him, national interests and acting like a responsible country came first.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi followed that principle in his speech on Dec 1. Talking about the Korean Peninsula, he emphasized that as a responsible power, China would make judgments according to facts, instead of taking sides with any country. He was right.
China has gone to great lengths to help denuclearize and restore peace on the peninsula.
It won't be partial in its foreign policy. But still it has not won the trust of all sides, which it needed to help ease tensions. The task for China now is to decide what steps it should take to ensure that its efforts are no longer misunderstood.
The author is a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China .