North Asia's diplomatic landscape could be about to look wildly different. It's about something more than North Korea's imminent threat to detonate its first known nuclear test device—perhaps as soon as Sunday, Oct. 8, the anniversary of Kim Jong Il's ascension to leadership of the ruling Workers Party in 1997. There's another force, far more quiet, that could turn the region upside down. Hu Jintao is finally making his big move.
After watching his performance as China's president since early 2003, most outsiders—and even many Chinese—had dismissed him as weak and indecisive, beholden to the policies and the Politburo he inherited from his predecessor in the post, Jiang Zemin. But two weeks ago Hu suddenly began shaking things up. First he axed one of his biggest adversaries on the Politburo, Shanghai party secretary (and senior Jiang loyalist) Chen Liangyu, in the highest-level purge in 11 years. Chen's removal has set off a major political housecleaning: several other Hu rivals and hundreds of crooked party cadres are threatened by the government's newly accelerated corruption probes. Hu has managed to recruit another influential former Jiang protégé, Zeng Qinghong, as his own hatchet man. And other big moves seem likely at this year's party plenum, convening Sunday in Beijing. “Most people are stunned by what happened to Chen Liangyu," says Sinologist Minxin Pei at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "People have greatly underestimated Hu's toughness and abilities."
Now the Chinese president has taken a huge foreign-policy step, as well. After more than five years of rejecting Japan's requests for a top-level summit, the Beijing government announced last week that it would welcome a visit by Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe—on Sunday, as it happens. That willingness to meet Abe is being hailed as Hu's boldest diplomatic move since he became president. Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was persona non grata in Beijing since October 2001. Koizumi kept offending the Chinese with his annual pilgrimages to Japan's Yasukini shrine, where the island nation's war dead are memorialized—including 14 convicted WW II war criminals. But this week a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a blandly worded but significant statement: "China and Japan have reached a consensus on overcoming political obstacles that affect bilateral relations."
The two countries have plenty to talk about after so many years, but nothing more urgent than Pyongyang's nuclear threat. Li Dunqiu, a North Korea specialist at Beijing's State Council Development Research Center, was quoted as predicting that the test would be held very close to the border of China's Jilin province, either in a disused coal mine or at a specially built underground facility. Many defense experts around the world were positive that the nuclear exercise was no more than days away, but they could only guess at a precise date. If it didn't come on Sunday, Kim might have picked Monday instead, to upstage Abe's scheduled trip to Seoul. Or Tuesday, the Workers Party's birthday—which also happens to be the day the United Nations General Assembly is expected to name South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, as the body's next secretary-general.
But timing is the least of Hu's worries: North Korea has become a monumental diplomatic challenge for him and for the world. Three years ago Beijing undertook a series of "Six-Party Talks" between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, hoping Kim could be persuaded to suspend his covert nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang began boycotting the talks last year, protesting a U.S. crackdown on North Korea's offshore bank accounts. Now the North Koreans seem prepared to wreak havoc on their ally's interests. The Chinese are envisioning all manner of potential evils that might arise from a North Korean nuclear blast. The entire region could devolve into a frantic and destabilizing scramble to build bombs. Alternatively, in Beijing's nightmares, the Americans might launch a pre-emptive military strike on Kim's nuclear facilities.
Hu doesn't want a war next door, and the last thing he needs is a showdown with Washington, which would be hard to avoid under the 45-year-old friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance treaty between Beijing and Pyongyang. Despite the fact that China provides at least 70 percent of North Korea's fuel supplies and a third of its food imports, Pyongyang has defied Beijing time and again. When Chinese officials asked Kim not to conduct ballistic missile tests in July, he went ahead and test-fired seven missiles, including the long-range Taepodong-2. By mid-August, China's ruling Communist Party had instructed government think tanks and researchers to begin compiling reports on "The Situation in North Asia after a Nuclear Test" by North Korea. Now Kim is raising the ante. This could be a moment for Hu to act decisively, just as he did within the party, quietly consolidating power and then pouncing dramatically to remove one of his biggest rivals. China's leaders sometimes take a long time before showing their true faces. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was thought to be a plodding apparatchik for years after he took power. Today he's remembered as a colorful political "liberal" who tilted in favor of the United States.
Beijing is already changing its stance, not only breaking a long tradition of not censuring Pyongyang in public but also going so far as to send as China's next ambassador to Pyongyang a senior diplomat who specializes in U.S. affairs. (China's new envoy started official duties in Pyongyang on Sept. 11.) China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, warned Wednesday that "no one is going to protect" North Korea if it engages in "bad behavior." He predicted "serious consequences" if Kim proceeds with the test. President Hu may yet refute the critics who have scoffed at the "myth" of China's leverage with Pyongyang. If he fails, North Asia's security landscape could well change in ways that bode ill for Beijing.