Beijing has much leverage with Pyongyang, but it is unwilling to risk destabilisation
North Korea's missile test on Sunday is not what the Chinese would have wanted to see happen.
Not only does it put pressure on China, Pyongyang's closest ally, to rein in North Korea - with Japan already urging the Chinese to take stronger action - but it also gives South Korea and the US an excuse to speed up the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system in South Korea that China deems a threat to its security.
And it comes at a time of uncertainty, with the North Korea policy of new US President Donald Trump still unclear.
In its response so far, Beijing has called for restraint on all sides from provocation and for consultation and talks, while blaming contradictions between North Korea and the US and South Korea for the North's nuclear programme.
Yesterday, noting that it had worked hard on resolving the issue, China said it will "continue to increase contact with all parties and continue to make efforts to promote an early, peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue".
While acknowledging that China and North Korea are "close neighbours" with friendly ties, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang also told a regular press briefing that Beijing has insisted on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Separately, an editorial in the Communist Party-linked Global Times listed what China had done on the nuclear issue, including organising the now-stalled six-party talks and participating in international sanctions against Pyongyang, for which China paid a "diplomatic price".
Indeed, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have cooled, particularly since China, which had traditionally opposed international sanctions against the North, began agreeing to tough sanctions last year. However, Western observers are not convinced that China will do all it can to stop the North's nuclear programme, much as it prefers a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.
China has much leverage with North Korea, noted East Asia expert Daniel Sneider of Stanford University, adding that the North is entirely dependent on China for trade and for food, fuel and other essential goods.
However, this is leverage China finds difficult to use, he added.
"To cut North Korea off from trade and essential goods basically amounts to destabilising North Korea, and the Chinese aren't willing to do that," he said.
Importantly, "the Chinese have made the strategic decision long ago that they want North Korea as a buffer state and they want to keep the US away from their border," Mr Sneider noted. He added that the Chinese were also wary of a unified Korea "that is aligned strategically and militarily with the US".
Instability and a collapse of the North Korean regime would not just mean refugees pouring into China, but also the possibility of unification.
However, Mr Sneider also noted that China feared conflict on the Korean peninsula, which was why it initiated the six-party talks in 2003.
Still, the latest missile test shows further progress in Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons and a delivery system, with the missile using solid instead of liquid fuel, which lessens the time needed to prepare it for launch. Last year, it conducted two nuclear tests.
All these has led Chinese expert on North Korea Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School to urge "concerned countries" - including those around the Korean peninsula - to recognise the "urgency and danger" of the nuclear issue.
"Concerned countries should seriously discuss real action to push for progress in the denuclearisation of North Korea," he added. If "major powers point fingers at each other, it will be troublesome", he warned.
He added that the US has absolute dominance in terms of capability to deal with the nuclear issue, and urged Washington to take the initiative in resolving it.
The Global Times editorial yesterday blamed the US and South Korea's responses, such as strengthening sanctions, for hastening the North's nuclear and missile tests. It called for a change in US strategies towards the nuclear issue to prevent bloodshed.
It would appear China is looking to the new US administration to do more to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'China looks to US to resolve N. Korean nuclear issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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