Nuclear Weapons

NKorea's nuclear test puts China in a tough spot

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of China's Foreign Ministry, speaks at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday. The Foreign Ministry said that Beijing did not have advance knowledge of North Korea's test of a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear device, adding that it firmly opposed Pyongyang's action.
Jason Lee | Reuters

Pyongyang's claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb on Wednesday has put China, one of its few remaining allies, in a quandary as Beijing seeks to solidify its position as a global power without compromising the region's power balance.

Former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns said the events represented a test for China's leaders.

"China wants to be a recognized power in Asia and globally as its military and economy grow. Great powers need to take responsibility to put out fires and deal with reckless states."

Because China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and main source of aid, it holds influence over the pariah state, making it an essential player in the current conflict.

But these ties, which date back to the Korean War, have weakened since the rogue nation began testing nuclear weapons in 2006. Chinese authorities have since joined the international community in calling for denuclearization and supported United Nations (UN) sanctions.

Sign of a new rift?

A possible sign of further deterioration in diplomatic ties is the fact that Chinese officials claimed they had no advance warning of Wednesday's test. That's unusual because Beijing tends to have the best information on what's going on in Pyongyang, noted Stuart Holliday, former U.S. ambassador for special political affairs to the United Nations (UN).

A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing a broadcast of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year speech, at a railroad station in Seoul on Jan. 1, 2016.
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So far, the Chinese Communist Party has been vocal in its condemnation of Wednesday's test but Beijing is well aware of the consequences that could have, some of which harm China itself.

If sanctions are ramped up, that only further impoverishes North Koreans and risks an influx of migrants crossing the border into the mainland. Further economic strain could also push the North closer to South Korea, whose relationship with Beijing remains murky.

"Beijing doesn't want Japan and South Korea, both whom are U.S. allies, destabilized by Pyongyang's threats but on the other hand, they don't want to see a collapse of the North and the emergence of a unified Korean peninsula with a unified Korean government aligned with the U.S.," said Burns.

Historically, Beijing has been reluctant to impose draconian sanctions on North Korea and it's unclear how forceful Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration will be this time around, as the world's second-largest economy deals with unprecedented currency depreciation, volatile stock markets and slowing factory activity.

"The Chinese have traditionally just called for more negotiations. It'll be interesting to see what happens this time especially with their economic pressure," noted Holliday.

Applying pressure

China's insistence that Kim abstain from nuclear escalation or risk food and energy supplies is one of the few tools the world possesses to contain North Korea, according to strategists.

"The U.S. has little leverage in respect to North Korea, but it does have leverage with China," explained Holliday.

"It's up to Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to insist China uses influence. If Beijing refuses, that could have repercussions for the U.S.-China relationship," echoed Burns, who called on President Barack Obama to phone Chinese President Xi Jinping to set the plan in motion.

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