SHANGHAI, April 18 (UPI) -- After months of vacillating, China has thrown its weight behind efforts to resolve a heated dispute between the United States and North Korea over the isolated nation's nuclear programs, arranging to host and actively participate in a round of talks between the two sides next week.
The talks, which will be begin Wednesday in Beijing, represent a major breakthrough in attempts to seek a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula, which erupted last October after North Korea's Kim Jong-Il admitted to having secret uranium and plutonium enrichment programs.
Observers say the move reflects a softening of North Korea's opposition to U.S. demands that meetings be held under a multilateral umbrella. Pyongyang had previously rejected the multiparty approach, calling instead for face-to-face meetings with top U.S. officials to resolve tensions over the six month-old crisis.
But Beijing's efforts to get these two seemingly intractable Cold War rivals to the negotiating table signals a major shift in policy for a nation that has tried desperately to avoid entanglement in the nuclear standoff.
The move shows a bold new determination by China to flex its diplomatic muscles in the region, an image that bodes well for the Communist-led nation's pledges to take on a larger role in international affairs.
According to Chinese diplomatic sources in Beijing, who spoke to United Press International on condition of anonymity, China's role in the talks will ultimately depend on the "willingness of both sides" to propose "constructive solutions" to the impasse, but they cautioned there are still numerous barriers to overcome.
"If they come to the negotiating table with a sincere desire to work together to resolve these issues, then China will likely play a more active role in these discussions as a third party," said one diplomatic source.
Others say China's involvement in the meetings is merely to facilitate bilateral negotiations between the two parties. One diplomat compared Beijing's role to that of a referee in a heavyweight boxing match.
"China's role is likely to be significant, but it doesn't want to get directly involved in the brawl," he said.
Chinese and U.S. officials are not willing to discuss the upcoming talks. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, during a regular news briefing in Beijing, refused to disclose details.
"The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula must be resolved peacefully through dialogue," Liu said. "Based on this principle, China has been making active and constructive efforts to achieve this goal."
The U.S. delegation will be headed by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, while sources say the Chinese side will be represented by Deputy Foreign Ministry Wang Yi, a veteran North Asian diplomat.
"We're very pleased with the involvement of the Chinese," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said during a regular briefing in Washington on Thursday. "The Chinese agree fully with the United States that the Korean Peninsula must be free of nuclear weapons, as do all of North Korea's neighbors, and that's important. We look forward to future talks, too, that include everybody in the region."
Whether or not the talks will be conclusive remains to be seen. Many analysts remain skeptical about the possibility for a resolution to the impasse, claiming Pyongyang is unlikely to give into a key U.S. demand that they terminate nuclear weapons programs and allow for the immediate return of the U.N. inspectors.
"There's a deep sense of mistrust between the parties which could preclude a settlement," said a Western diplomat in Beijing. "If the Chinese can keep them at the table long enough, it might break the stalemate."
The diplomat said despite Beijing's insistence that it will only play a facilitator role in the talks, there is too much at stake for the new Chinese leadership, in terms of regional stability, to remain on the sidelines.
"The possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula has become too real for the Chinese to ignore," he said.
In recent months, Beijing has come under increasing pressure from the Bush administration to exert more influence over North Korea -- its neighbor and long-time ally -- to abandon its covert nuclear ambitions.
There are clear indications that the new Chinese leadership has felt compelled to take a more active role because it fears the threat U.S. military action on the Korean Peninsula. According to sources in Beijing, President Hu Jintao has in recent weeks been pressured by top officials in the People's Liberation Army to increase military assistance to Pyongyang, which could involve weapons and technology transfers.
"Senior Chinese military officials are very concerned about losing the North Korean buffer zone," said one Asian diplomat. "After the war in Iraq, there are fears of a preemptive U.S. military strike on North Korea."
Exactly how much influence Beijing has over Pyongyang is unclear. During the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, Chinese troops fought alongside North Korea's army, and they remained allies throughout the Cold War. Politically isolated, North Korea has been looking to Beijing in recent years for guidance in reforming its system of centralized state planning, which has driven the nation near the brink of economic collapse.
More recently, relations between the two have been strained. In February, China showed its displeasure with the actions of Kim Jong-Il's regime when it temporarily closed a crucial oil pipeline to North Korea.
For Beijing, there is much to gain and little to lose from attempting to broker a successful resolution to the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and North Korea. It would eliminate a major security concern along its border, while ensuring economic stability in the region that China depends on to fuel its domestic growth.
Even if the negotiations don't result in a compromise, it would still enhance China's international image by proving to the international community that it is serious about ensuring a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
"China is concerned about the cost to stability in the region, if the U.S. turned to a military option to solve its dispute with North Korea," said Yan Xuetong, a professor at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. "Whether North Korea and the U.S. have the political will to reach a settlement, that remains to be seen."