(Associated Press) - North Korea's proclaimed nuclear test has handed China one of its biggest diplomatic crises, giving Beijing an unwanted, decisive role in determining how harshly to punish its communist neighbor and ally, reports Trend.
Beijing's dilemma showed clearly in its initial response to Monday's test explosion. The Chinese Foreign Ministry joined the worldwide condemnation, saying North Korea had "ignored the universal opposition of the international community and flagrantly conducted the nuclear test." At the same time, it appealed for restraint on all sides and a negotiated settlement.
Beijing's ability to tread that fine line was tested immediately as pressure grew in the U.N. Security Council for action against Pyongyang. The United States, the superpower whose security umbrella and trade have enriched China, and Japan, a huge investor in the Chinese economy, immediately called for sterner measures.
"It's a great test to China's international prestige," said Wang Jisi, the head of Peking University's School of International Studies.
Content for decades to keep a low international profile, China has faced rising calls from the United States in recent years to play a role befitting its growing economic clout. Beijing took its biggest gamble three years ago, opening negotiations to shut down North Korea's nuclear programs, with the United States and eventually Japan, South Korea and Russia taking part.
But as those talks sputtered, North Korea became a litmus test for what kind of power China intends to be. Beijing has refused to wield its greatest leverage the food, fuel and financial assistance that have kept its isolated neighbor afloat despite U.S. pleas, and even after North Korea ignored China's warning not to test-fire missiles in July.
"China has very limited options," said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing. "What will China do if the U.S. government and Japan call for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council? China is a U.N. member and will have to implement the sanctions. If that happens, Chinese-North Korean relations will be destroyed."
South Korea's nuclear envoy said Tuesday after returning from Beijing that China appeared to have dropped opposition to tough U.N. sanctions.
"China seems to have different position than it had before on a Chapter 7 resolution," Chun Young-woo told The Associated Press.
He was referring part of the U.N. Charter that deals with threats to international peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression. It allows the council to authorize measures ranging from breaking diplomatic ties and imposing economic and military sanctions to taking military action to restore peace.
"I think (China) will employ all available means to prevent North Korea from further aggravating the situation and to bring them back into diplomatic efforts," Chun said after returning from a two-day trip and meetings with Chinese officials. Still, he said, Beijing reiterated its commitment to a peaceful diplomatic solution to the issue.
China and North Korea fought off U.S.-led U.N. forces in the Korean War. The emotional bond still runs strong, especially among older Chinese, and Beijing has so far stood by Pyongyang for strategic reasons.
North Korea provides a strategic buffer against U.S. troops in South Korea and ties down those American forces should Beijing attack Taiwan, a democratically ruled island China claims as its own. A North Korean collapse could also send refugees pouring over the Chinese border, straining the resources in the northeastern industrial rustbelt.
In wake of North Korea's claim to have joined the nuclear club, China's communist leadership hurriedly convened meetings with North Korean watchers and nuclear proliferation experts, a scholar informed of the discussions said, requesting he not be identified because of the sensitivity.
Among the options tabled were calls to abrogate China's 1961 friendship treaty with North Korea and to choke off fuel supplies, the scholar said. But opponents argued China should preserve its buffer state and communist partner, he said.
Given the discord, Chinese leaders are likely to try to play for time, Chinese and foreign security specialists said.
"It's going to be very important to see how China responds to this," said Peter Beck, a Seoul-based analyst with the think tank International Crisis Group. "One reason the North wasted no time to test was so that they could pre-empt Beijing from cutting off fuel or aid shipments to get the North's attention."
Beijing is likely to agree to a strong U.N. resolution and, perhaps, limited sanctions, as it did after North Korea's July missile tests, while counseling the other U.N. powers to not further irritate a testy, isolated state, analysts said.
"You don't want to make an already horrific event that much worse," said Jonathan Pollack of the U.S. Naval War College. "The Chinese aren't of a mind to bring down the North Korean regime."