China and the Cheonan

May 20, 2010
Mourners for deceased sailors from the Cheonan

Mourners for deceased sailors from the Cheonan

The news conference dragged on for 20 minutes as several dozen journalists in the room tried to rephrase the only question they wanted an answer to, but China’s foreign ministry wasn’t biting.

South Korea had announced earlier in the day that after a long investigation with international participation, it was sure that a North Korean torpedo had sunk a navy warship, the Cheonan, in March, with a loss of 46 lives.

Everyone wanted to know what the response would be from China, the closest thing to a real ally that the Pyongyang regime can lay claim to.

But at a regular scheduled foreign ministry briefing, the government spokesman was tight-lipped even by the sparing standards of Chinese official spokespeople. The sinking was “unfortunate”, said Ma Zhaoxu. China was making its own assessment of the South Korean report — already accepted by the United States and Britain — and in the meantime urged all sides to stay calm, and avoid escalation.

But that bare-minimum response to a bombshell announcement wasn’t enough for the assembled journalists and as the minutes ticked by they became increasingly impatient. So too did Ma.

“Your question is hypothetical. I am not going to answer it,” he snapped at one journalist, who asked how Beijing would respond if one of its ships was sunk in a clear act of aggression, with loss of sailors’ lives. Ma suggested another listen more closely to his responses before putting questions that had already been answered. And more than once he tried to wrap up the news conference. But the questions — or question — kept coming.

The assorted correspondents came at it all ways — from a blunt request to know whether China considered the sinking important, to a long discourse on the premium modern China has always put on science, and whether it would affect Beijing’s acceptance of Seoul’s report.

None elicited more than the brief, dry, prepared answer that China was looking into the report. Ma wouldn’t even say who in China was looking into the report, “just the Chinese side” he said, when asked which departments were responsible.

By the end of the unusually testy news conference, journalists were laughing at the repeats of the same single answer for the nth time, and even Ma appeared to be trying to hold back a smile.

Beijing’s approach seemed strange — Seoul had made quite clear what its findings would be well in advance, even briefing the Chinese ambassador – but had its own logic.

It’s a difficult scenario that leaves China with no easy response.

If it supports the investigation findings, it risks alienating always-touchy Pyongyang, even as it wages economic and political stakes on shaping the country’s shaky future. If it rejects the findings, it will be isolated both in Asia and internationally, and risk appearing willing to reject scientific evidence to support unprovoked aggression and killing by a state that is already a pariah. (See my colleague’s analysis of the challenge China faces here).

So they may just be hoping it will fade at least somewhat as the global economy continues its roller-coaster path and other crises distract the world. But if wishes were horses, China’s foreign ministry would be riding off into the sunset en masse, instead of scratching their heads at their desks over handling the report on the Cheonan sinking.

The South Korean media is aggressive and competitive, as are the Japanese press corps, who are almost as interested in the story. With news conferences every Tuesday and Thursday until August, Ma and his colleagues may be repeating their answers many times unless the assessment is wrapped up fast.

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