BEIJING—North Korea's nuclear test deeply rattled China because it has more at stake in the survival of the isolated Pyongyang regime than it likes to admit.
Moreover, some of those vital interests are conflicted. Their balancing places China's policymakers in a quandary as they play a pivotal role at the U.N. Security Council in deciding how to punish North Korea for its nuclear test.
China values being seen as a responsible rising power interested in shouldering global issues and maintaining peace and stability in East Asia. Its leaders also regard soaring economic ties with the United States as a vital interest.
"China doesn't want to severely hurt relations with the United States over the North Korean issue," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations specialist at People's University in Beijing.
Since 2003, when China first began hosting six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, it has won international praise. But Chinese hosts preferred to preach restraint rather than enter the fray and twist arms, and in the end they obtained little.
"China never played a real mediator role," said Jin Linbo of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, adding that China doesn't feel threatened by North Korea's nuclear program.
"I don't think Chinese leaders believe North Korea's nuclear weapons will immediately affect China's national interests," he said.
At the same time, as China's leaders frequently point out, they need peace abroad so that they can focus on economic growth and reforms and sort out a myriad of domestic problems, such as widening disparities of income and tattered social safety nets.
China also does not want to face the possible collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime and the need to explain to China's citizens the failure of an allied one-party state like its own, scholars say.
"If the regime (in Pyongyang) collapses, that could be a big shock to the Chinese system," said Wu Guoguang, a former editorial writer for the People's Daily who is now a political scientist at the University of Victoria in Canada's British Columbia.
It took China's leaders years after the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s to rebuild confidence in the Communist Party and tell people, "Look, the party survived. Communism is okay," Wu said.
China has a historic friendship with North Korea, tempered by the spilled blood of hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops during the 1950-1953 Korean War. China's older generation strongly supports North Korea, a historic if troublesome ally, and prefers a divided peninsula to a reunified, more powerful Korea on its borders.
Moreover, say analysts, Pyongyang plays a strategic role for Beijing.
Kim Jong Il's million-man army occupies the attention of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, and could rattle the cage and divert the Pentagon if Beijing ever were to deploy troops in a blitz attack on Taiwan, a self-governed island it claims as its own.
"Taiwan is a priority for Beijing," said Wu, noting that China's leaders routinely believe that if they bend to Washington on the North Korea issue, it gives them leverage on Taiwan.
Even so, there is no denying Beijing's real frustration at Pyongyang for what it sees as a reckless escalation of tensions, reflected in its angry denunciation Monday of the "brazen" nuclear test and its willingness to support punitive U.N. sanctions.
China knows that a nuclear-armed North Korea deeply unsettles Japan and could spark an arms race in East Asia. It also raises the possibility of an eventual U.S. limited military strike on North Korea, making Kim's future less certain.
"The present situation is quite dangerous. North Korea faces more and more isolation," Shi said. "The possibility of collapse has increased."
China maintains leverage on Pyongyang by supplying more than half of its vital energy supplies, yet it believes it affects events in North Korea less than ever, Shi said.
"China's relations with North Korea already are at the lowest point in many years, and influence is at the lowest level," he said.
While China's leaders juggle differing concerns, they also keep an eye on the public mood. Chinese are at once unhappy with Kim for embarrassing their nation and deeply averse to kowtowing to Washington's demands to punish Pyongyang.
China is most likely to want to deal with the crisis like a family dispute, chastising North Korea in public but stopping short of inflicting real pain, Wu said.
"You want to punish your brother but you want to maintain the brotherhood," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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