BEIJING — It was a snub to China, and a signal that Beijing’s influence is waning.
North Korea may have explained Wednesday’s reported hydrogen bomb test as a response to U.S. “hostility,” but experts say it may more accurately reflect deteriorating relations with China.
The question now is how Beijing will respond: Not by abandoning its troublesome ally, experts agree, but perhaps by punishing it still further. Whether that would have any effect is even more in doubt.
“In a way, this is a protest against Beijing,” said Bo Zhiyue, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington. “They are saying: ‘we can do whatever we want. This shows our independence and we don’t need your approval.’”
If North Korea’s claim is true, its fourth nuclear bomb test and first hydrogen bomb explosion would mark a significant step forward in its nuclear capability, and a major challenge to the outside world — including to China which has long expressed its displeasure with Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
On Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said North Korea had “ignored” objections from the international community. “China firmly opposes this,” it said in a statement. “We urge North Korea to fulfill its promise of denuclearization, and stop any actions that would worsen the situation.”
Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news conference that Beijing had not been warned in advance of the test and would summon the North Korean ambassador in Beijing to lodge a protest.
But experts say Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang has waned since Kim Jong Un took over in North Korea at the end of 2011 and Xi Jinping became president of China in 2013. The two men have not met since then, with Xi even snubbing his counterpart by visiting South Korea first in 2014.
In October, there was talk of thaw when Xi sent an envoy to attend a military parade in Pyongyang with a signed letter carrying the Chinese president’s “best wishes” to Kim.
But relations were swiftly sent back into the deep freeze in two short days in December, when Kim declared his country had developed a hydrogen bomb. Within 48 hours, North Korea’s glamorous girl group, the Moranbong Band, abruptly packed their bags and headed home, just hours before a high-profile concert in Beijing. That was less than a month ago.
“The Moranbong Band incident basically revealed North Korea’s intentions, and you could see that communication between China and North Korea is quite bad,” said Xuan Dongri, the director of Northeast Asia Studies at Yanbian University in northeast China. “China and North Korea’s understanding of each other is deteriorating further.”
Xuan said the main target of North Korea’s nuclear test might have been the United States and South Korea, “but it also wanted to send a stronger protest message to China. North Korea wants more help from China.”
Victoria University of Wellington’s Bo said a key problem in the relationship has been the centralization of power in Beijing under President Xi.
Instead of a multi-faceted policy towards North Korea that existed under previous president Hu Jintao, with some senior leaders advocating engagement and others taking a harder line, Xi is now calling all the shots, he said, while simultaneously insisting Party officials not question his decisions publicly.
Since Xi has not met Kim, and has his hands full with other domestic and foreign policy challenges, there is little meaningful dialogue taking place, and very little internal debate on how best to influence Pyongyang, Bo said.
“You need to have a connection, if you want to convince or persuade the other side,” said Bo. ‘If you don’t have a connection, where is the leverage?”
Bo said Xi was “caught in a dilemma,” unwilling to hew closer towards the U.S. approach of isolating and punishing North Korea, but “powerless” to prevent North Korea’s nuclear program.
At the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, Paul Haenle said that even though the North Koreans had pointed to the United States as a justification for their test, “the real attention is focused on China,” and how it will respond.
No one is expecting a complete breakdown in Sino-North Korean ties, nor are they expecting Pyongyang to abandon a nuclear program that has become a key pillar of its regime’s declared legitimacy, at least not in the foreseeable future.
“Beijing will face increased pressure both domestically and internationally to punish and rein in Kim Jong Un and to ultimately force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons,” said Yanmei Xie, senior China analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing. “But there is likely to be a repeat of the worn playbook of denunciation, tightening of sanctions, and calling for resurrection of the six party talks.”
North Korea pulled out of “six-party talks” with South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan over its nuclear program in 2009. On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua said those talks were “only practical and effective way to solve the North Korea problem.”
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and supplies most of its neighbor’s oil and gas, as well as about half of its foreign aid. But it has been unwilling to pull the plug for fear of toppling the regime.
Haenle said China was likely to move cautiously, but did not rule out it taking a tougher line.
“I don’t think we can overlook the fact that Xi is a new and fundamentally different kind of Chinese leader,” he added, citing his historic move to meet Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in November as an example.
“While analysts have plenty of evidence to justify their assessments that China won’t change course, I think we need to be open to the possibility that China could respond differently this time,” Haenle argued.
“North Korea’s defiance is not only an untenable burden on China’s image as a credible and strong leader on this issue, but will also lead to an enhanced U.S. security posture in the region and increased cooperation between the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies – not something Beijing wants.”
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said the test left China no choice but to support further United Nations sanctions towards North Korea. But the Crisis Group’s Xie said nothing would be done that might upset Beijing’s bottom line.
“For Beijing, a nuclear armed North Korea is uncomfortable and disturbing, but a regime collapse in Pyongyang, leading to mass chaos next door and potentially a united Korean Peninsula with Washington extending its influence northward to China’s doorstep, is downright frightening,” Xie added.
Gu Jinglu and Liu Liu contributed to this report.