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October 10, 2006
China Rethinks Its Alliances

The nuclear test by North Korea yesterday may have produced results which Kim Jong-Il did not anticipate. China issued an unusually harsh response to their client state, and the London Times reports that Beijing may reconsider its relationship with the impulsive Stalinist:

CHINA responded with rare fury to neighbouring North Korea’s nuclear test, resorting to language generally reserved for imperialist opponents rather than communist friends.

Beijing’s response was unusually swift. “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has ignored the widespread opposition of the international community and brazenly carried out a nuclear test,” it said.

Long gone are the days when China and North Korea described their relationship as being “as close as lips and teeth”. Indeed, North Korea’s test has delivered China to a diplomatic crossroads: it can choose to act tough with a troublesome neighbour or to stick with the cajoling and persuasion that have now been seen to fail. ...

That China is furious at the test was more than reflected in the tone of its official response. Beijing had urged Pyongyang only a day earlier not to take such a provocative step.

Zhu Feng, an expert on North Korean ties, said that the statement showed China’s increasingly tough policy towards a country that was once its closest ally. “This is a very significant signal,” he said.

China wants to make itself the primary power in east Asia, and it originally saw the Korean crisis as an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership and influence. China got cut out of the Agreed Framework discussions, which predictably resulted in their lack of assistance in enforcement. The Bush administration's insistence on multilateral talks accepts China's influence as a given, and they had an opportunity to show how they could exercise their diplomatic clout to reach a solution on behalf of the Americans and the North Koreans.

All of that dissipated in the seismic tremor felt throughout the Korean Peninsula. China had convinced new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make Beijing his first destination of his term, a departure from the traditional visit to the US. This was supposed to highlight China's waxing importance (and the waning influence of the US) and open a new level of engagement between the two economic powers of the region. Instead, Kim embarassed Hu Jintao at exactly the moment when he wanted to make China appear strong. Hu could not even influence a world leader that relies on Hu to survive.

It's not just embarassment that drives China to reconsider. The nuclear test will surely convince Japan and South Korea that they have little choice but to acquire their own nuclear arsenals in answer to Kim's threat. China does not want to see a nuclear escalation throughout the region, especially by Japan, who would certainly also upgrade their navy. China wants to be the only military power in the region, and Hu knows that Japan's economy could easily outproduce their own in military armament. Japan could also purchase materiel from the US quite easily; China has no such option.

China may have no choice but to accept sanctions against Pyongyang. They rarely give their approval to such actions, but Kim may have left them no manuevering room now. Even their own think tank suggests such a policy change, a clear signal that Beijing has something in mind for the UN Security Council.

Only China can influence Kim to end his nuclear pursuits; that much we know. Whether they want to do so will be seen soon enough.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 10, 2006 5:13 AM

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