As North Korea's old ideological ally and main economic partner, China is regarded by the international community as a chief mediator in the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. China has hosted a series of six-party nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
The last round of six-nation talks, that included South Korea, Russia, Japan and the U.S, ended last November without producing an agreement. The North refused to further participate, protesting U.S. restrictions on a Macao bank accused of laundering money for the regime.
Washington has urged Beijing to exert its full influence on Pyongyang, including cutting off its oil supply and economic aid, to pressure it to suspend nuclear activities and return to the disarmament talks.
But Beijing says its perceived leverage with Pyongyang is exaggerated. On a visit to the U.S. in July, Gen. Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, told his hosts that North Korea was a sovereign state and China could not dictate its decisions.
In a similar vein, a senior Chinese academic wrote recently that Pyongyang considers its national interests to be greater than its relations with China.
"It (Pyongyang) will not give up the independent guarantee of national security gained though nuclear tests just because of China's concerns and the possibility of China applying pressure on it," Shen Dingli, a scholar at Shanghai's Fudan University Institute of International Affairs wrote in an article published on the website of the Nautilus Institute, a California-based think tank.
Shen went further to speculate that a nuclear-armed North Korea could prove useful to China's long-term goal for reunification with Taiwan because it would divide the attention of the U.S. military presence in East Asia.
Other Chinese experts have blamed the U.S. for provoking North Korea by refusing to hold bilateral talks and imposing financial restrictions.
While China joined in an United Nations Security Council warning adopted last week that a nuclear weapon test would attract a "universal condemnation", experts here believe Beijing is unlikely to back up any military sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong-il. China, and Russia's reservations in this regard, is one of the reasons why the Security Council presidential statement did not specify any possible sanctions, they say.
"The possibility of military action against North Korea is minimal," reckons Li Dunqiu, an expert on the Korean peninsula with the State Council Development Research Centre. "There would be economic sanctions and Pyongyang would be forced into a protracted state of isolation".
There is already a precedent of disarray within the international community in response to Pyongyang's provocative behaviour. After North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles in July, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the launches but failed to agree on a set of sanctions.
China's main worry remains that if Pyongyang tests a nuclear weapon, it would provoke an arms race in the region that would see Japan acquiring its own atomic arsenal. That would ultimately destroy the balance of power in East Asia where China is the only confirmed nuclear power.
North Korea has now insisted for several years that it has nuclear weapons. But only a nuclear test could provide confirmation that Pyongyang has joined the club of nuclear powers.
Though a severe test for regional stability, the threat of a possible North Korean nuclear test has proved conducive to getting the leaders of China and Japan to hold their first summit in five years.
Riled by repeated visits made by Junichiro Koizumi, the former Japanese prime minister, to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals and Japan's war past are glorified, China has refused to have bilateral summit meetings with Japan.
But Beijing chose to put matters of history aside and discuss the possibilities of united policy towards North Korea with Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe. The threat of a nuclear test dominated talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao during Abe's first visit to Beijing on Sunday.
"Both sides expressed deep concern about recent situations over the Korean peninsula, including the issue of nuclear tests," said a joint statement after Abe's meetings with Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
It also said both nations would "work hard" to push for the resumption of the stalled six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Beijing and Tokyo however differ in their views on how to persuade North Korea to hold back from the nuclear brink. Japan has aligned itself with the U.S. in demanding tough sanctions against Pyongyang while Beijing prefers to talk negotiations and concessions.
Abe, a nationalist who favors a more assertive Japanese foreign policy, is widely known for his hawkish stance on North Korea. "We have to stop North Korea from conducting a nuclear test," he said before departing from Tokyo on his first foreign trip since becoming prime minister two weeks ago.
He is due to travel to Seoul on Monday for talks with South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun.
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Albion Monitor October
9, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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