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North Korea and the test for China

China and her secretive neighbour North Korea were once described as close as ‘lips and teeth’. Now the teeth are biting hard, writes Reshma Patil.

world Updated: May 29, 2009 00:41 IST
Reshma Patil

China and her secretive neighbour North Korea were once described as close as ‘lips and teeth’. Now the teeth are biting hard.

On Monday, while the world’s most powerful leaders swiftly condemned North Korea’s underground test of a nuclear device, China — North Korea’s only old-time ally and biggest trade partner — faced its own diplomatic test.

When Beijing’s foreign ministry finally released a statement, it said that China ‘resolutely opposed’ the nuclear test. “This statement is, to say the least, mild and ineffectual,” Raviprasad Narayanan, a Taipei-based analyst at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, told the Hindustan Times.

The US expects China to wield influence to prod Pyongyang to behave, or else. But Beijing is treading a tightrope even as North Korea threatens war and strikes against US and South Korean ships.

Stability-obsessed China does not want an influx of refugees from the 1,416 km long North Korean border and fears that instability inside the reclusive regime will jeopardise security across East Asia.

Beijing analysts told HT that the West has an exaggerated idea of China’s sway over North Korea. “China’s influence is limited. North Korea does not listen to us,’’ Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at the elite Renmin University in Beijing told the Hindustan Times.

The State-run Global Times has described the standoff as China’s ‘pressure and dilemma’. Since 2003, China has hosted six nation talks aimed at North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.

Analysts don’t think that North Korea will return to these negotiations soon and say that snubbed Beijing is now likely to support potential UN sanctions.

Ironically, just two months back in March, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had presided over an opening gala and opera performances to mark the China-North Korea Friendship Year and 60 years of diplomatic ties.

China supplies North Korea everything from food to luxury goods and almost 90 per cent of its oil demand — with exports growing to two billion dollars last year.

As Richard Bush, an expert on North Korea and China at the Washington-based Brookings Institution told Bloomberg: If China was really serious it could probably bring the country to its knees’’. But North Korea doesn’t look worried.