Senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday they believe China is reconsidering its support for North Korea in the aftermath of the March sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao plays a pivotal visit to South Korea on Friday.
China has long been Pyongyang's main supporter and has thus far declined to endorse an international investigation that concluded last week that North Korea was behind the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors.
But U.S. officials traveling home with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Asia said Wednesday they believe Beijing is rethinking its relationship with Pyongyang, and may support international action against it.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believes China will "subtly and carefully" move closer to the position of South Korea and will begin a process of dialogue with Seoul on an appropriate international response.
He said he believes the likely occasion for China to signal this shift will be Prime Minister Wen's visit to Seoul Friday and Saturday for meetings with President Lee Myung-bak and other South Korean officials.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley also said the talks in Seoul will be pivotal, and he said a reported Russian decision to send experts to examine evidence in the naval incident points to an emerging big-power consensus on the issue.
"I'm sure that when Premier Wen is in Seoul he'll have the opportunity to South Korean officials, including the president about the investigation. As the Secretary (Clinton) reiterated today, we think it was scientific and we think it was thorough and we believe that the results were clear. China and Russia will obviously make their own determinations of the investigation and the implications. China, Russia, along with Japan, South Korea and the United States, we are committed to a process that we hope will send a clear message to the North Korean leadership and that they will chose a different path," he said.
Secretary of State Clinton, ending a trip to Japan, China and South Korea Wednesday in Seoul, said the world must respond to sinking of the Cheonan, which she said was a provocation requiring a strong, measured response.
South Korea wants the issue raised in the U.N. Security Council and the United States has vowed full support for any diplomatic approach by its ally.
One of the senior officials traveling with Clinton suggested that action on the sinking should await the completion of Security Council work on new sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, cautioning against overloading the U.N. system.
Another official said he believes the sinking incident was one factor in Japan's decision to shelve demands for changes in a 2006 basing agreement on U.S. forces in Okinawa.
He also said the incident is persuading China that it needs to "do something about the behavior of its North Korean neighbor"