North Korea-China ties strained by nuclear test vow

Sunday, October 8th 2006, 12:35 pm
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China responded to North Korea's warning that it will test a nuclear bomb with some of the sharpest rhetoric Beijing has used against its longtime communist ally. But would China punish Pyongyang if it goes nuclear?

Chinese foreign ministry officials and the government's North Korea watchers have discussed policy options in the wake of North Korea's televised vow to conduct a nuclear test. The Chinese ambassador to the United Nations issued a pointed appeal for Pyongyang to desist.

``No one is going to protect'' North Korea if it goes ahead with ``bad behavior,'' Wang Guangya said amid the heated diplomacy this past week over a statement criticizing Pyongyang. ``I think if North Koreans do have the nuclear test, I think that they have to realize that they will face serious consequences.''

The comment marked a departure from Beijing's usual strategy of avoiding direct criticism of North Korea. It followed China's support of U.N. sanctions imposed on the North in July after Pyongyang test-fired missiles even after Beijing urged it to not to.

For a relationship the neighbors and Korean War allies frequently described ``as close as lips and teeth,'' China-North Korean ties are peevish. A nuclear test would further strain the already tense relations, potentially touching off a nuclear arms race in the region and angering the United States, China's top export market.

If the test goes forward, some ``people expect a U-turn in China-North Korean relations, a major overhaul,'' said Alexandre Mansourov, a specialist in Northeast Asian security issues at Hawaii's Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Of all the regional powers, Beijing has the greatest potential leverage over North Korea. China supplies almost all of North Korea's oil, significant amounts of food and fertilizer and preferential bank credits. The countries' political and military leaderships have frequent exchanges.

But although its options for pressure are many, China is unlikely to deal with Pyongyang harshly if there is a nuclear test, analysts said.

``Ties will not break,'' said Li Dunqiu, a North Korea expert at the Chinese Cabinet's think tank, the State Council Development Research Center. Even in the wake of July's missile tests and Wang's U.N. comments, Li said relations between Beijing and Pyongyang remain strong.

``It's true that China will have to respond if North Korea tests,'' said Mansourov. ``But it will probably be very mild.''

The reason: China's support for Pyongyang serves China's strategic and economic interests.

In 1998, when another Chinese ally, Pakistan, conducted a nuclear test, Beijing criticized Islamabad but took no substantive action. North Korea is an even more crucial ally.

Foremost in Beijing's eyes, North Korea serves as a buffer, keeping the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea well away from the Chinese border and ``the soft underbelly of the northeast China industrial heartland,'' Mansourov said.

An armed and threatening North Korea, he said, also keeps those American forces pinned down in the event Beijing decides to use force to absorb Taiwan, a democratically ruled island that China claims and that the U.S. is obliged by law to help defend.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have also rebounded in recent years from a low in the late 1990s when economic mismanagement and floods had turned North Korea into a liability that refused to adopt the free-market reforms so successfully applied by China.

While Beijing still gives significant amounts of assistance to North Korea, economic relations are providing substantial benefits to both sides, said Li, the Chinese researcher.

A healthy North Korean economy means fewer refugees pouring across the border looking for work in China, the analysts said, and Chinese companies are making money too.

Trade between China and North Korea rose nearly 55 percent last year, to $1.7 billion, from $1.1 billion the previous year, Mansourov said.

Mansourov said China is also making increasing use of North Korean coal and iron ore and is even importing North Korean electricity.

So while Beijing might criticize, a nuclear test is likely to bring little change in Chinese policy. ``I don't believe there will be any overhaul,'' Mansourov said.