China is mulling a variety of measures to prevent North Korea from conducting another nuclear test, including dispatching a delegation of officials to Pyongyang.
Beijing made no great attempt to stop the North's first and second nuclear tests, suggesting that leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping's government is far more serious about stopping North Korea's nuclear adventure. The official Global Times, a sister publication of China's People's Daily, earlier warned Beijing will not hesitate to cut back aid to the North if it conducts a nuclear test or launches another long-range rocket.
China has more leverage over North Korea than any other country since it accounts for 89.1 percent of North Korea's trade and 90 percent of North Korea's oil imports. Beijing provides more than 200,000 tons of food to the North either in the form of aid or at a low price. If China decreases aid or trade with North Korea, the impoverished country would suffer a huge blow.
But there are limits even to China's clout. Ever since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea has dealt with any signs of interference from China by sacking pro-Beijing officials within the regime. As a result, China has resisted wielding its muscle in sensitive issues that could trigger a strong backlash from Pyongyang. And Beijing cannot neglect North Korea's strategic value in diplomatic conflict with the U.S. It has therefore been relatively passive in preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and preferred to maintain stability.
But if North Korea goes ahead with a nuclear test, the political situation in Northeast Asia could pass the tipping point. If the North becomes capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile, South Korea and Japan will scramble to bolster their defense capabilities, forcing the region into an escalating arms race. And they will have to depend more heavily on the U.S.-led nuclear umbrella and missile defense system to keep a nuclear-armed North Korea and China in check. That is the last thing China wants on its doorstep.
The most important regional issue is to block North Korea's third nuclear test and freeze its nuclear weapons program. South Korea, the U.S. and Japan must make sure that China finds itself in the best possible position to prevent North Korea from conducting a nuclear test. They must hold close discussions about how this can be done.