Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a reputation for diplomatic sparring. Her battles with the Russian envoy, Vitaly Churkin, and the French ambassador, Gerard Araud, have been epic.
But Rice has generally held her punches in negotiations with Li Baodong, China's reserved, formal, U.N. envoy -- a man who has shown little taste for the diplomatic joust.
That is, until now. Early today, the big power envoys squared off in a closed-door Security Council session over competing views about how the 15-nation body should react to North Korea's missile launch.
Rice urged the Security Council to swiftly respond to North Korea's surprise launch of a satellite (via a ballistic missile) with a statement condemning Pyongyang's action as a violation of U.N. resolutions and characterizing it as a provocative act that "undermines regional stability."
Li pushed back, saying that there was no need to condemn North Korea, and that its test constituted no threat to regional stability.
"That's ridiculous," Rice shot back, according to one of three council diplomats who described the encounter.
"Ridiculous?" a visibly angered Li responded through an interpreter. "You better watch your language."
"Well, it's in the Oxford dictionary, and Churkin -- if he were in the room -- he would know how to take it," retorted Rice.
The reference to Oxford dictionary refers to Churkin's riposte, in December 2011, to a public broadside by Rice, who charged him with making "bogus claims" about alleged NATO war crimes in Libya to divert attention from charges of war crimes against its Syrian ally.
"This is not an issue that can be drowned out by expletives. You might recall the words one could hear: bombast and bogus claims, cheap stunt, duplicitous, redundant, superfluous, stunt," said Churkin to Rice. "Oh, you know, you cannot beat a Stanford education, can you?" said Churkin, mocking Rice's alma mater. Rice, a former Rhodes scholar, later noted that she also went to Oxford.
Today, however, Li countered that Rice's remarks were consistent with an American foreign policy approach that seeks to impose its will on other states.
In the end, however, Rice and her council allies were able to secure a clear condemnation of Pyongyang, though they dropped the provision suggesting the test has undermined regional stability. A Security Council statement condemned the missile launch, calling it a "clear violation" of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning ballistic missile tests. The council took note that it threatened last April to take action against North Korea if it launched further tests, and it vowed to "continue consultations on an appropriate response."
The United States, working with Japan and South Korea, is expected to lead efforts in the coming weeks to forge a tougher council reaction, preferably a resolution imposing sanctions. But they are expected to encounter tough resistance from China, which indicated it was not prepared to support a confrontational resolution penalizing Pyongyang, according to council diplomats.
And the man Rice will have to persuade to impose the council's will on North Korea is her new sparring partner, Li Baodong.
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