So much for the next great economic super-power being a secretive, insular and isolated nation.

China has confounded its many critics by acting as the driving force behind the unexpected and hugely significant agreement by North Korea to take the first steps towards nuclear disarmament in exchange for energy aid.

In a triumph for diplomacy and following years of increasingly bitter confrontation, China is deservedly taking the plaudits for steering the six-party talks in Beijing to an agreement.

The deal will see North Korea shut its Yongbyon reactor and allow international inspectors on to the site, receiving 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil or economic aid of equal value in return. A further one million tonnes of fuel oil or equivalent aid will be sent when it takes further steps towards nuclear disarmament (http://www.guardian.co.uk/korea/article/0,,2011985,00.html).

It is undoubtedly a triumph for the Chinese, currently looking to create a more positive image for itself to match its rapid and continuing economic growth. Hosting the Olympics in 2008 is regarded by Beijing as a major step in that rehabilitation, but China’s role as chief architect of such an unlikely diplomatic agreement with North Korea will also provide something of a PR coup.

After all, anyone who manages to convince North Korea’s unpredictable leader Kim Jong-il – a man short in height but monumental in terms of ego – to change his mind, deserves a slap on the back.

Kim Jong-il, who many believe actually played himself in the film Team America, has hardly portrayed himself as the voice of sanity and reason. North Korea is an economically-bankrupt, shadowy nation and the leader presides over one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

But then China has hardly been a beacon for rational thinking and liberalism.

It still has a long way to go to rehabilitate itself and to overcome the suspicion many feel towards it. There are undoubtedly significant issues regarding China’s human rights record that still need to be addressed.

In the short-term, however, China deserves credit for its success.

There are those who remain critical, not least of the agreement China has brokered. Is it right for a so-called rogue state to be “rewarded” in such a way?

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the agreement, the fact that North Korea has signed up to such a deal is a major breakthrough that no amount of threats (either idle or genuine) would have achieved.

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