- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

China’s willingness to back “punitive” international sanctions against North Korea over its reported nuclear test is a stark illustration of the growing divisions in an alliance long billed as “as close as lips and teeth.”

China, the North’s diplomatic patron and economic lifeline, suffered a major blow to its prestige and influence because of the reported test, regional security analysts said. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il approved the test in the face of explicit, repeated warnings from Beijing.

“The biggest losers from this crisis have been, first, China, and second, the United States,” said Kurt Campbell, an Asia defense specialist in the Clinton administration and a senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“There’s a tendency in Washington to reverse that order, but China’s challenge going forward is in many ways much more grave than it is for the United States,” he said.

Despite the statement by Wang Guangya, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, that the North should suffer “punitive actions,” analysts predict Beijing will try to shorten the list of military and financial sanctions being pushed by the United States and Japan at the U.N. Security Council, while giving the North a diplomatic escape hatch if it backs down.

But the fact that Beijing is backing sanctions at all shows the depth of its displeasure with Pyongyang. U.S. officials noted that Chinese Foreign Ministry statements condemned the North’s act as “brazen” and “intolerable” — unusually strong language for the circumspect Chinese.

China’s deep concern over what comes next with regard to the North was evident yesterday as Chinese President Hu Jintao dispatched Tang Jiaxuan, state councilor for foreign affairs, as a special envoy first to the United States, then to Russia, according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Mr. Tang left Beijing for the United States yesterday, the news agency said. His official function is as member of the State Council, China’s super-Cabinet.

The North’s nuclear test claim constitutes the second time in four months that Pyongyang ignored a direct appeal from China against a provocative military display.

North Korea’s July 4 test of seven ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver a nuclear payload came exactly one week after a personal appeal from Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to scrap the exercise and return to the China-sponsored six-party talks, which the North has boycotted since September 2005.

The North piled on the insults by refusing to receive a top Chinese diplomat dispatched to Pyongyang to discuss the missile test.

China supplies an estimated 70 percent of the North’s food and fuel needs, and official bilateral trade amounted to $1.5 billion last year. U.S. critics express frustration that Beijing has refused to use its leverage to curb provocative acts by the North.

But Stephen Blank, an instructor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, noted that China signaled its increasing unhappiness in recent months in more subtle ways, allowing a group of North Korean refugees in northeast China to travel to South Korea and revealing that it had frozen some North Korean assets in the Bank of China over money laundering concerns.

The purported North Korean nuclear test harms Chinese foreign policy interests in many ways, analysts said.

The shock from the North’s claim will drive South Korea and Japan closer to the United States, and focus Washington’s attention on security issues in Northeast Asia, China’s strategic back yard.

The test also is a blow to China’s prestige and clout as the world’s rising economic superpower. China’s sponsorship of the six-party talks on the Korean Peninsula crisis was seen as a coming-out party for Beijing as a major diplomatic player after decades of focus on internal issues.

“We’re old friends, and they ignored our views, so naturally we’re not too happy,” retired Maj. Gen. Xu Guangyu, a Chinese nuclear weapons specialist, told the Reuters news agency.

Derek Mitchell, former special assistant for Asia-Pacific affairs at the Pentagon and now with the CSIS, said China’s inability to constrain its ally could have consequences for other Beijing foreign policy priorities, including its opposition to the U.S. hard line against Iran’s nuclear programs.

“Their reputation has taken a huge hit,” Mr. Mitchell said. “They kept telling the U.S., ‘Be patient. We’re doing our best.’ This test just blew all of that out of the water.”

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