China has the most difficult task of all the participants in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program that begin Monday in Beijing. As the chief patron of the North Korean regime China supplies up to half the country's food requirement and even more of its daily oil needs Beijing has long been seen as the only party with any real influence over the actions of the erratic Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. But Kim gave his backers in Beijing a rude surprise on October 9, when North Korea announced that it had tested a nuclear device in defiance of China's demand for restraint.
North Korea's test was a "major foreign policy failure for China," says Kenneth Lieberthal, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and who as a former senior National Security Council staffer in the Clinton Administration had been part of the U.S. team negotiating with Pyongyang in the late 1990s. China, after all, had consistently said that the only way to deal with Pyongyang was to engage the regime and provide it with incentives such as food aid and other economic goodies to prevent it from taking such provocative steps as testing a nuclear device. "Then, Kim Jung-il pulled the rug out from under [China's President] Hu Jintao," Lieberthal says.
In the weeks following the test, it became clear that Beijing was as surprised as anyone else by the North's action and also very angry at its ostensible client state. An official Foreign Ministry statement condemned the test, calling it a "brazen violation," one of the strongest terms in the ministry's diplomatic phrasebook, usually reserved for opponents or enemies. Even more pointed was Beijing's subsequent agreement to reverse its long-standing opposition to U.N. sanctions on the North, albeit acquiescing to a version that the Chinese ensured was considerably watered down compared to the original U.S. draft.
With the talks about to begin again and Pyongyang at least nominally willing to discuss how its nuclear program can be limited, Beijing now has to "think very hard about how they can be more effective," Lieberthal says. But in reality, Beijing's options are very limited. Pyongyang made it clear with the nuclear test undertaken despite the express and public request by China's President Hu Jintao to refrain that there are limits to Beijing's influence in Pyongyang.
Nor is forcing North Korea into line by cutting back on food and energy supplies a real option the country's economy is precariously weak, and China fears that even a small nudge, such as cutting off oil deliveries for several days as it did three years ago, could precipitate a catastrophic collapse. The last big famine during 1995-96 is now estimated to have killed as many as 2 million North Koreans. With memories of those awful days still vivid, China believes that any similar crisis would dump a huge humanitarian crisis in its lap by sending hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees over the border, badly disrupting the economy of China's northeast. Beijing is currently constructing a fence along the border, but there is little expectation that this will be particularly effective. All of which means that Beijing will have little real option but to smile politely and play gracious host during the six-party talks. Tea anyone?