How Will China React to Nuke Test?

North Korea's apparently successful nuclear test has sent shock waves through international capitals and promises to alter the security landscape of North Asia in alarming ways. But it creates an especially difficult diplomatic challenge to China and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

Long seen as Pyongyang's most important ally and the only country with enough leverage to influence Kim Jong Il's behavior, the Chinese President had engaged in an extraordinary flurry of diplomacy since Pyongyang announced its intention to go nuclear a week ago. On Sunday Beijing took the unusual step of hosting Japan's new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, on an official visit to Beijing. Hu met Abe for a top-level summit that thawed a half-decade of chilly Sino-Japanese relations. And the rapprochement took place amidst surprisingly positive atmospherics, with both Chinese and Japanese officials heralding a turning point for the better in their ties. Clearly, the urgency of the North Korean threat had been a catalyst for the summit's remarkably positive tone. A Japanese official traveling with Abe called it the first step in a new personal relationship of trust.

Abe said both sides agreed that a North Korea nuclear test would not be tolerated, and a joint statement called such a development unacceptable—the toughest public language to date that China has used to try to keep the lid on Kim's nuclear ambitions.

Chinese authorities reckoned—or at least hoped—that this unprecedented departure from Beijing's earlier reluctance to censure Pyongyang publicly would deter the North Korean leader from following through on his threat to conduct a nuclear test. In a Beijing press conference late Sunday evening, Abe had stated that North Korea was certainly watching the [Sino-Japanese] summit closely, and we have sent a very strong message.

But obviously not strong enough. When the date of the summit—Oct. 8—passed without Pyongyang conducting a test, some analysts began to speculate that the united front presented by Tokyo and Beijing had deterred Kim from following through on his threats. Beforehand, regional analysts had expected an Oct. 8 test because that day was the anniversary of  Kim's ascension to head the ruling Worker's party in Pyongyang in 1997.

But such speculation that Kim was staying his hand turned out to be grimly premature. Hu has another reason to be furious with Kim. Sunday was also the opening day of a key four-day Chinese communist party plenum in Beijing, during which Hu was slated to begin the political maneuvering required to reshuffle personnel and orchestrate his own succession. Now that important party conference is in shambles, upstaged by Kim's nuclear test.

The big question now is whether Hu will decide to reverse China's longstanding opposition to the use of economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Beijing provides more than 70 percent of North Korea's fuel supplies and a third of its food imports—but has been extremely reluctant to pull the plug on this pipeline for fear of destabilizing the Pyongyang regime. For several days in March 2003, Beijing stopped fuel supplies to North Korea in a bid to influence Pyongyang to join the Beijing-sponsored six-party talks (among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.). But Beijing never publicly owned up to the shut-off and its diplomats later tried to explain it as the unintended consequences of a mechanical breakdown.

Now, China's policy of sticking to diplomatic tactics—such as the unusual Hu-Abe summit Sunday—has proved to be too little, too late. Diplomatic sources in Beijing, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Chinese officials would be hard-pressed to continue arguing against economic or financial sanctions now.  The topic is slated to be raised at an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security council Monday.

The fact is, Chinese authorities themselves had become gloomy about Beijing's ability to rein in their increasingly erratic ally Kim Jong IL. In July, despite Chinese requests that he refrain from doing so, Kim went ahead and test-fired seven ballistic missile, triggering alarm in Tokyo and Seoul. After the missile tests, Beijing and Moscow supported the U.N. Security Council's resolution censuring North Korea for the launches—a move that surprised Kim and prompted him to declare China and Russia to be unreliable allies.

The missile tests were a wake-up call for Beijng.  In mid-August, the ruling Communist Party reportedly instructed research institutions, thinktanks and Korea-watchers in mid-August to write reports on "The Situation in North Asia after a DPRK Nuclear Test." As for China's influence on restraining Kim, foreign policy analyst Shen Dingli wrote recently that that Beijing's much-vaunted leverage has been a myth. "Basically, our country's work of persuasion with the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) in the 12 years that the DPRK developed its nuclear program had been a failure," he declared in a frank commentary published recently in a party newspaper.

Beijing's biggest fear is that jitters over North Korea's nukes might trigger a spiraling nuclear arms race in North Asia, with Tokyo, Seoul and even Taiwan tempted by the prospect of developing nuclear weapons in self defense. Clearly, North Korea is betting that the global anti-proliferation regimes are in such tatters that Pyongyang will be allowed to follow in the footsteps of India and Pakistan, which have weathered the international brouhaha after their own nuclear tests in the late 90's and are now both U.S. allies. Now it's up to China—and the rest of the world—to prove Kim wrong.