China’s Nuclear Test: How Far Will Beijing Go to Curtail North Korea’s Atomic Provocations?

China’s Nuclear Test: How Far Will Beijing Go to Curtail North Korea’s Atomic Provocations?

Faced with a third North Korean nuclear test in less than seven years, United Nations diplomats headed Wednesday into an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council wondering about the answer to a vital question: How far will China be willing to go to contain a provocative neighbor that has upped the ante in its nuclear brinkmanship?

The answer, at least for now, is that Beijing is unlikely to go as far as the United States and its allies want. Following the closed-door meeting, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., Samantha Power, said Washington wants a “tough, comprehensive, and credible package of new sanctions” to punish North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s second nuclear test since he came to power in 2012. The explosion unleashed a barrage of international criticism, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemning the move and warning that it threatens to undermine regional security as well as efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons around the globe.

“I demand [North Korea] cease any further nuclear activities,” Ban added.

Stern rhetoric aside, any effort to punish Pyongyang will need the blessing of Beijing, which wields veto power on the 15-nation Security Council. It’s unclear whether China will be willing to provide it.

In the initial aftermath of the nuclear test, diplomats voiced confidence that China would ultimately agree to impose some costs on Pyongyang for defying its lone big-power protector. But it appeared unlikely later Wednesday that Beijing would agree to the crippling economic and diplomatic penalties that the United States, South Korea, and Japan have long sought.

During Wednesday’s session, China joined with the rest of the Security Council in issuing a statement that “strongly condemned” the North Korean test and agreed to immediately begin negotiations on a resolution containing “further significant measures.” But China’s deputy envoy, Wang Min, provided few hints about how far Beijing is prepared to go, saying simply that any response should be “appropriate,” according to one Security Council diplomat who attended the meeting.

“The fact was that they weren’t trying to drag the chain on this, and they accepted a pretty strong statement,” said a second Security Council diplomat, noting that it was Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin — and not China’s envoy — who urged the council to exercise caution in considering a “proportionate” reaction.

“China was signaling they were prepared to consider further measures,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations. “The question will be, ‘How strong will those measures be?’ — and we have had no discussion of that yet.”

The nuclear crisis in North Korea comes amid strains between Beijing and Pyongyang. Earlier in his administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping snubbed his North Korean counterpart by paying his first visit to the Korean Peninsula to South Korea, the North’s bitter enemy. Several months after becoming president in 2013, Xi joined the United States and other key powers in reinforcing sanctions on North Korea for its previous nuclear tests.

But China has taken steps to patch up the relationship. In December at the Security Council, Beijing sought to block the United States and other key powers from confronting North Korea over its human rights record. Two months earlier, in October, China sent a high-ranking member of its Politburo, Liu Yunshan, to Pyongyang to join Kim at a military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean leader’s party. There, Liu hand-delivered a letter from Xi, who warmly praised Kim for improving the lives of the North Korean people.

The gesture may have backfired, according to North Korea watchers.

“The Chinese’s biggest nightmare all along is that they would invite Kim to Beijing, he would show up, and then go home and conduct a nuclear test,” said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “They would look stupid and it would look like they had approved the test. This is that nightmare on a smaller scale. It’s embarrassing.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed frustration with North Korea’s action, noting that Beijing had not been informed in advance of Pyongyang’s plans to detonate an explosive — and underscoring Beijing’s strong opposition.

“Today [Pyongyang] ignored the general objection from the international community and conducted a nuclear test once again,” she said. “China firmly opposes this.… We urge North Korea to fulfill its promise of denuclearization and stop any actions that would worsen the situation.”

Wit said he doesn’t expect China’s leaders to “radically change their approach” toward North Korea in the test’s wake, but “I’ve got to believe they are not very happy.” U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, Wit added, now must seize on the current crisis to press Beijing to impose serious penalties on North Korea.

“Frankly, I think the administration needs to step up the heat on the Chinese,” he said. “We need to tell them this is unacceptable, and they need to be more cooperative in putting more sanctions on North Korea, or we will take steps to protect ourselves and our allies.”

That, Wit said, could involve increasing cooperation on missile defense and threatening the imposition of additional unilateral sanctions that could impact China’s financial interests. The nuclear crisis, he said, is “obviously getting worse and worse.… We can’t just keep doing business as usual on this issue.”

In the past, China has acceded to pressure from the United States, Japan, and South Korea to apply limited sanctions aimed at curtailing Pyongyang’s ability to advance its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. But it has routinely resisted repeated efforts by Washington and its allies to impose harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions that could further isolate the Hermit Kingdom.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that she would work with the international community to “make sure that North Korea pays the corresponding price for the nuclear test,” according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. In Beijing, meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond pressed China’s top diplomat to help broker a tough response at the United Nations.

Speaking after Wednesday’s session, Japan’s U.N. ambassador, Motohide Yoshikawa, said the Security Council is obliged to impose a “robust” regime of penalties on North Korea if the council is to maintain its “authority and credibility.” Yoshikawa declined to say which measures Japan favors. But another Security Council diplomat said some delegations are expected to demand adding the names of individuals and entities linked to North Korea’s nuclear program to an existing U.N. sanctions list.

Jonathan Pollack, an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, said China is growing increasingly weary of the costs of North Korea’s nuclear provocations, particularly at a time when its business relations with South Korea and Pyongyang’s other regional rivals are growing in importance. The Chinese, he said, are “incredibly aware of the extent to which North Korean actions impinge on China’s vital interests.

Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images