The current discussion over what to do about North Korea's underground nuclear test and expected follow-up detonation should be expanded to place Kim Jong-il, the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, into the context of the region and of history.
Whether or not the US, Japan and South Korea ought to embargo or blockade North Korea for its nuclear weapons program pales in significance relative to what China believes its regional interests are.
China will determine North Korea's fate -- and it may act sooner and in a more forceful fashion than anyone outside Beijing would even remotely consider as being possible today.
While the former Soviet Union ultimately acquiesced to the reunification of Germany, China may force the reunification of Korea because it is in its best interests to do so. There are five compelling reasons for China to act decisively on the Korean question.
First, China does not wish to give Japan the excuse to develop its own nuclear arsenal.
A nuclear-armed Kim gives Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a compelling reason to arm Japan with nuclear weapons. Japan has enough plutonium to build some 8,000 nuclear warheads and it has the technology to build them and deliver them accurately to Beijing.
It may also encourage other Asian powers -- such as Taiwan -- to seek nuclear weapons.
Second, China believes it can work a transformational quid pro quo with South Korea's leadership. The deal? China would topple North Korea in exchange for South Korea's promise to eject all US military forces from the peninsula.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is well-known for his anti-US and nationalist beliefs. Reunifying Korea and removing all US forces from Korean soil would cement Roh's status as a truly historic Korean leader.
Third, reunifying Korea would effectively eliminate Korea as an economic competitor to China for two decades, as South Korea would expend about US$2 trillion to rebuild the North to bring it up to the South's standards.
Fourth, a united Korea preoccupied with rebuilding the North would share a long and vulnerable border with China, forcing Korea completely into a Chinese tributary orbit, as it has been for much of its history. This would represent a strategic Chinese diplomatic victory and would represent a blow to Japan and the US.
Fifth, and perhaps just as important as all the other reasons, a Korea reunited under the auspices of China would greatly strengthen Beijing's hand in demanding the same of Taiwan, even though the historical case for unification is weak and the moral case for doing so is nonexistent.
We should not forget history when considering what we might see in the coming weeks from China. In late 1950, China quietly positioned more than 300,000 troops along its border with Korea in preparation to intervene in the Korean conflict. In November of that year, some 30 Chinese infantry divisions maneuvered south and attacked, achieving a major strategic surprise on the UN command and its 425,000 troops operating under US General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1979, there was another example of a Chinese surprise attack. China attacked Vietnam to teach it a lesson over Hanoi's actions in Cambodia and its close ties with the old Soviet Union.
China fought on for 29 days, losing more men in less than a month than the US did in some 12 years of fighting in Vietnam. China may be a modern and powerful nation today, but its leadership is largely of the same genus that existed 27 years ago.