North Korea's proclaimed nuclear test has handed China one of its biggest diplomatic crises, giving Beijing an unwanted, decisive role in determining the degree of punishment its ally will face.
Beijing's dilemma showed clearly in its first response to Monday's test explosion. The Chinese Foreign Ministry joined the global condemnation, saying North Korea had "ignored the universal opposition of the international community and flagrantly conducted the nuclear test."
At the same time, President Hu Jintao (
Beijing's ability to tread that fine line was tested as pressure grew in the UN Security Council for action against Pyongyang. The US' security umbrella and trade have enriched China, while Japan is a huge investor in the Chinese economy, and both countries immediately called for sterner measures.
"It is a great test for China's international prestige," said Wang Jisi (王輯思), the head of Peking University's School of International Studies.
Content for decades to keep a low international profile, China has faced calls from the US in recent years to play a role befitting its growing economic clout. Beijing took its biggest gamble three years ago, opening negotiations to shut down North Korea's nuclear programs, with the US and eventually Japan, South Korea and Russia taking part in the talks.
But as those talks sputtered, North Korea became a litmus test for what kind of power China intends to be. Beijing has refused to wield its greatest leverage -- the food, fuel and financial assistance that have kept its isolated neighbor afloat -- despite US pleas and even after North Korea ignored a Chinese warning not to test-fire missiles in July.
"China has very limited options," said Shi Yinhong (石印紅) of Renmin University in Beijing. "What will China do if the US government and Japan call for sanctions in the UN Security Council? China is a UN member and will have to agree to implement the sanctions. If that happens, Chinese-North Korean relations will be destroyed."
A North Korean collapse could send refugees pouring over the Chinese border, straining the resources in China's northeastern industrial rustbelt.
In the wake of North Korea's claim to have joined the nuclear club, China's communist leadership hurriedly convened meetings of North Korean watchers and intelligence and nuclear proliferation experts on Monday to discuss options, an academic informed about the discussions said, requesting he not be identified.
Among the options tabled in the discussions, which ratcheted up a week ago after Pyongyang announced its intention to test, were calls to abrogate China's 1961 friendship treaty with North Korea or choking off its fuel supplies, the academic said.