The China Daily, an official newspaper in Beijing, indicated last week that Chinese leaders are reasonably comfortable with North Korea's atomic ambitions, including its recent detonation of a nuclear device.
Under the headline "All quiet on China's northeastern front," the paper reported that life was normal along the Yalu River, which separates China from North Korea and is only 150km from the North Korean nuclear test site.
"Tourists were strolling along the riverside avenue and riding on boats," the newspaper said, "swimmers were frolicking in the river before it gets too cold, and cargo trucks were rumbling across the Friendship Bridge that spans the Yalu River which marks the border between China and the DPRK," or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea.
There is wide agreement among experienced Asia hands that the sole outside pressure that could get North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, to give up his nuclear weapons can only come from China. Only China, if it chose to apply it, has the political, economic and military strength to get Pyongyang to turn back after more than a decade of research and investment.
Thus the underlying reason for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's journey to Japan, South Korea, China and Russia is somehow to persuade China to get tough with the North Koreans and get them to relinquish their nuclear arsenal-in-the-making.
Despite all of Rice's brave and even constructive words, however, her mission was most likely doomed from the start for a fundamental reason: The US' priorities are not China's priorities.
China's leaders have given no sign that they are concerned about a nuclear attack from North Korea, not when they have long lived with a nuclear-armed Russia to the north, a nuclear-armed India to the south, and a nuclear-armed US in the sea and air to the east. Moreover, they sit atop a police state that so far has been impervious to terrorists who might someday acquire a nuclear device.
Further, Chinese leaders, beginning with President Hu Jintao(
China has also asserted that it has limited influence on the feisty North Koreans.
Most US officials have read that as meaning China is not willing to apply its considerable clout to Pyongyang, but is content to let Kim keep the US at bay.
After North Korea's nuclear test, said a China hand, "nothing has changed."
In contrast, US President George W. Bush has been far more interested in North Korea's nuclear plans than in Kim's governance. Bush was quoted by the Associated Press last week as warning North Korea: "If we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer." He did not say how.
In addition, hints have started to come from Washington suggesting that the Bush administration would favor what is euphemistically called "regime change" in Pyongyang. In plain words, that means overthrowing Kim, an act on which China would not look kindly.
A little over a year ago, then deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick, gave an address that was billed as a definitive statement of Bush's policy toward China. Zoellick appealed to China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international arena.