Updated Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 08:13 PM
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s nuclear test by North Korea, China will almost certainly join the United States in supporting tougher sanctions at the United Nations, accompanied by sterner reprimands from Beijing against its recalcitrant ally in Pyongyang.
But as impatient as China might be with North Korea, there is little chance that the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, will move quickly to change the nation’s long-held policy of propping up the walled-off government that has long served as a buffer against closer intrusion by the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula.
China also fears that an unstable collapsing regime could result in streams of Korean refugees and other problems.
The Chinese military, and to a lesser extent the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, assert strong influence on China’s Korean policy, and both these powerful entities prefer to keep North Korea close at hand, Chinese and U.S. analysts say.
Chinese military strategists adhere to the doctrine that they cannot afford to abandon their ally, no matter how bad its behavior, analysts here say. The Chinese Communist Party looks upon the North Korean Communist Party — led by Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the nation’s founder — as a fraternal brotherhood.
But there could be some adjustments by Xi, according to Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, an advocate of a tougher policy by China against North Korea.
“One nuclear test will not make China’s new administration decide to ‘abandon North Korea’ but it will definitely worsen China-North Korea relations,” Zhu wrote in a recent article in the Straits Times of Singapore.
“North Korea’s nuclear test will make the new Xi Jinping administration angry and give China a headache.”
Xi, who became head of the Communist Party and military council in November, will ascend to the presidency of the country next month.
Already he has shown himself to be more nationalistic than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, displaying China’s determination to prevail in the East China Sea crisis in which China is seeking to wrest control of islands administered by Japan. He has also displayed considerably more interest in China’s military, visiting bases and troops in the past two months with blandishments to soldiers to be combat ready.
To improve China’s strained relationship with the U.S., Xi could start with getting tougher on North Korea, harnessing China’s clout with the outlier government to help slow down its nuclear program.
If Xi does not help in curbing the North Koreans, perhaps by privately threatening to pull the plug on infusions of Chinese oil and investments that keep North Korea afloat, he will almost certainly face an accelerated U.S. ballistic-missile defense program in Northeast Asia on behalf of Japan and other allies in the region. That would be an unpalatable situation for China.
The Obama administration excoriated Hu after North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009, accusing him of “willful blindness” to that country’s actions.
“With Hu out of the picture, the administration is intent on determining whether Xi Jinping will prove more attentive to U.S. security concerns,” said Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.
“How Xi chooses to respond will be an important early signal of his foreign-policy priorities and whether he is ready to cooperate much more openly and fully with Washington and Seoul than his predecessor,” he said, referring to South Korea.
A more heightened debate about North Korea is now swirling around China’s foreign-policy circles. On one side are those like Zhu who favor some kind of cooperation with the U.S. in curbing North Korea’s nuclear program. On the other side are the traditionalists in powerful positions in the army and the party who adhere to the buffer-zone theory.
“A lot of people are taking the very old-fashioned belief that North Korea is a strategic buffer,” said Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies who is also proponent of a new policy toward North Korea. “They still believe American invaders would march over North Korea to come to China.”
Jia, who visited Washington last month, said China should use wayward North Korea as a starting point for a more cooperative relationship with the U.S.
“One option is North Korea,” he said. “We have to work together to stop it becoming a nuclear power.”
Zhu said Chinese news-media accounts stressing the need for punishing North Korea in a more meaningful way were an encouraging sign.
“They are quite rare signals, and I don’t recall any moment during the past 10 years that Beijing unequivocally and forcefully spoke up against Pyongyang’s nuclear tricks,” he said.
But for all China’s distaste for North Korea — culturally and politically the two governments stand far apart — China should remain a firm ally of North Korea, said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia director and China adviser for the International Crisis Group in Beijing.
“The political relationship between China and North Korea right now is at a low point, but China’s long-standing priorities on the Korean Peninsula of no war, no instability and no nukes remain in that order of priority,” she said.
China was prepared to live with a nuclear North Korea as long as the arsenal remained small and its nuclear status did not result in an arms race, she said.
But the third nuclear test takes North Korea another step closer to a nuclear weapon that can reach the U.S., even though that accomplishment may be years away, said Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
He visited North Korea two years ago and was shown the country’s uranium-enrichment facilities.
“Threatening a missile-capable warhead with a successful third nuclear test gives the U.S., South Korea and Japan good reason to step up their regional ballistic-missile-defense capabilities,” Hecker said. “That should give the Chinese government some pause.”
People watch a TV news report in Osaka, Japan, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The letters translate: " North Korea, Third nuclear test"