On the February 12, North Korean media reported that Pyongyang had conducted a nuclear test claiming it was an act of defense against perceived hostility on the part of the United States. In December, North Korea had successfully put a satellite into space using a three-stage rocket, an infraction under the agreement among the country’s neighbors and the US banning North Korea from testing long-range missile technology. On January 22, the UN condemned North Korea’s rocket launch and expanded sanctions against the regime: just two days later Pyongyang announced a new nuclear test.

Reaction to the new test has been predictably harsh on the part of the country’s international critics. Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe dubbed the test a “grave threat”, while Obama spoke of a “highly provocative act”. Russia, too, expressed disappointment.

Pic: AP.

Less expected was China’s criticism. According to Reuters, authorities in Beijing summoned the North Korean ambassador and “protested sternly”, while Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China was “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the test.

And China has so far backed its words with actions: on March 11, China supported the UN Security Council and approved Resolution 2094, which will strengthen sanctions on North Korea even more. According to the Stockholm International Peaces Research Institute (SPRI), it remains to be seen if Beijing will increase their implementation. What is sure, says the Sweden-based institute, is that “while all member states have been asked to implement these new measures, their strength will be ultimately determined by China’s actions”, as  “the majority of North Korean cargo – including illicit consignments of military and dual-use goods – passes through Chinese ports and airspace”.

After a general agreement for a resolution was found last week, Li Baodong, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying: “a strong signal must be sent out that a nuclear test is against the will of the international community [..] they have got to bring an end to that program.”

Professor Zhu Feng, a leading expert on China’s foreign policy at Peking University, told the New York Times that “one nuclear test will not make China’s new administration decide to ‘abandon North Korea’ but it will definitely worsen China-North Korea relations”. According to Professor Zhu, “North Korea’s nuclear test will make the new Xi Jinping administration angry, and give China a headache.”

China’s irritation is evident in a piece written by General Luo Yuan on the state-owned Global Times, where he points out the risk of escalation that Pyongyang’s actions entail: “once North Korea has nuclear weapons, the nuclear security situation around China will further deteriorate, which could even cause a chain reaction. Japan, South Korea and others will use this as an excuse to build anti-missile systems or even develop nuclear weapons themselves.” According to the general, “China doesn’t have to pay for North Korea’s rashness at the cost of its own hard-earned period of strategic opportunities, and China must let North Korea clearly know this”. He suggests Beijing to stick to a moderate strategy and target only “nuclear program-related personnel, capital, materials and technology”.

Indeed, China’s position vis-à-vis North Korea is an uncomfortable one. Traditionally, Beijing favors the regime as it provides a shield against pro-American forces in South Korea and, at a time when China’s position is more isolated than it has ever been since the end of the Cold War, keeping old allies seems to be plain common sense. Moreover, an eventual collapse of the North Korean regime would raise fresh problems, from a likely wave of refugees that would move north through the border to the issue of radioactive material which would be left behind and could fall in unfriendly hands.

The logical outcome of this reasoning is that the top priority for Beijing is maintaining the stability and possibly increasing the prosperity of its neighbor. However, some in China believe that there is another risk for their country: namely that North Korea may follow the path traced by Burma and play the American card against its current ally. This point was highlighted by Ren Weidong on the Global Times roughly one week before General Luo published his piece. An associate research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, Mr. Ren, argues that “although North Korea regularly denounces the US, it is anxious for improvement in North Korea-US relations as well, because it is the US, rather than China, that has the biggest effects on the North’s security and development”. “North Korea-US relations,” he warns, “may suddenly improve when China is worrying about nuclear tests.” China should bide her time, leave the US and North Korea to deal with the nuclear issue and “maintain and develop Sino-North Korean cooperation”. He specifies that Beijing should not tolerate the nuclear problem as it has been presented, but he adds that the only condition which may lead to denuclearization is the removal of foreign troops from the peninsula and the reunification of the two Koreas.

The two opinions, both published on a nationalistic outlet and both supporting only limited action, look rather like a confirmation of Beijing’s uneasy position. On the one hand, Chinese leaders recognize the importance of having a stable ally in North-East Asia to cope with outside pressure. On the other hand, however, they have to deal with a regime that could cause a serious deterioration in Asia’s international environment – a situation for which China would be largely held responsible, and which would be to the detriment of China’s own interests.