North Korea's atomic test has put China on the spot. Beijing is angry with Pyongyang for conducting the test without any prior consultation. According to reports, Beijing received only 20 minutes advance notice. In response, China's UN ambassador said that Beijing might not be able to protect North Korea.
The Chinese wanted to maintain some credibility with the US by agreeing to vote for a UN sanctions regime, but also wanted to keep the response more symbolic than real. China will not be part of the interdiction and enforcement provisions of the sanctions regime. It will simply do inspections on the Chinese border.
As Xu Guangyu (徐光宇) of the government-sponsored China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said, "This is more a symbolic step than a real sanction measure."
"China just doesn't engage in that sort of trade with North Korea, so there's not much practical that needs to be done," he added.
But if Pyongyang is being told that China's endorsement of the UN sanctions regime is just a symbolic exercise and that it will continue to do business as usual, how is this going to effect North Korea's behavior?
Indeed, North Korea is already under a severe embargo by much of the international community and it is surviving mainly on food and fuel supplies from China. And if this arrangement continues, it might as well be business as usual for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's regime.
Unless Beijing is prepared to bite the bullet and go all out against Kim's nuclear ambitions, North Korea is likely to develop as a serious issue between China and the US.
As US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said "China itself now has an obligation to make sure that it complies with the resolution," because "China voted in favor of that provision [of sanctions]."
Beijing rates curbing terrorism and nuclear proliferation as positive factors in US-China relations. Indeed, the US focus on terrorism and Iraq has enabled China to expand its political and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Middle East and Africa.
Therefore, it is to Beijing's advantage to create an image of China as a relatively benign alternative power center. On the question of nuclear non-proliferation, China doesn't share US enthusiasm for substantive action, be it in Iran or North Korea.
True, it has condemned North Korea's atomic test and voted for sanctions. But that is as far as it is likely to go. Beijing will not intercept or interdict North Korean ships carrying banned items.
"I think different countries will do it [sanctions] different ways," Chinese Ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya (
Until now, North Korea's nuclear ambitions had given China a strategic advantage. With the US mired in Iraq and over-stretched militarily, Washington came to depend heavily on Beijing to bring North Korea into line. With the China-sponsored six-party talks, Beijing was in the driver's seat with everyone looking to it to produce the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.
The talks, however, weren't going anywhere. For the last one year Pyongyang had boycotted the six-party forum. Beijing was not keen on putting the extra squeeze on Pyongyang by tightening up its economic and political leverage.
But North Korea was already hurting under the US financial embargo and trade boycotts by many other countries. It therefore decided to ratchet up the stakes by testing an atomic bomb and announcing that the UN sanctions were an act of war. And the North has promised further dramatic action in the future.