Kim tests China's patience as bomb demolishes talks

Wayward ally squanders Beijing's hard-won political capital

North Korea's nuclear test marked a diplomatic failure for Beijing and signalled its waning influence over a traditional ally, analysts said yesterday.

While Beijing condemned the test, the question now is whether it will go beyond tough language by supporting sanctions against North Korea, and the severity of any measures it might back.

For China, which won diplomatic plaudits for taking a role in negotiations aimed at resolving the issue, the nuclear test spelled the end of the six-party talks, which were aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, analysts said.

'It is very disappointing for China. All previous efforts were in vain. The six-party talks are no longer possible,' said Liu Ming , a researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

The test followed a diplomatic warning from Beijing as well as a summit between President Hu Jintao and the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a day earlier, when the two leaders discussed the issue.

'Apart from darkening the prospects for the six-party talks, [the test] hurt China's national interests and will have a negative impact on relations between Beijing and Pyongyang,' said Jin Canrong of Renmin University's School of International Studies in Beijing.

Professor Jin said the Foreign Ministry's comments heralded the beginning of a tougher stance towards North Korea.

'The statement marks the start of Beijing's change of attitude towards Pyongyang, which is likely to become tougher,' he predicted.

Analysts said the mainland was now in the delicate position of trying to balance relations with countries like the US, Japan and South Korea with its relationship with North Korea.

China and North Korea have in the past described their relationship 'as close as lips and teeth'. In the 1950s, Chinese troops aided North Korea in fighting UN forces in the Korean war. But Chinese officials have recently become divided over how to deal with an increasingly defiant North Korea.

'China is now in a very difficult position,' a foreign diplomat said. 'Compared with other countries, China still has influence towards North Korea. But China itself, compared with before, has less influence.'

One way China could exert influence is imposing economic sanctions, such as cutting off exports of energy and grain to North Korea.

Professor Liu said that such measures were unlikely. He speculated that the US would like to see limits on air and sea cargo transport to North Korea.

'China will generally comply with the decision of the UN. But it is unlikely to support tough punishment, which could escalate the conflict and bring risk to regional peace,' he said.

China exercises influence as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Other Chinese scholars agreed, saying a collapse of North Korea could bring other problems. 'China is expected to tone down such proposed sanctions out of fear that they may result in an internal crisis in North Korea, which would eventually hurt China as well,' said Shi Yongming of the China Institute of International Studies.

Regardless, the nuclear test was certain to heighten tensions in East Asia, said Bruce Jacobs, a professor of Asian studies at Australia's Monash University.

'I don't think it's going to set off a [nuclear] arms race in East Asia, but what it will do is make East Asia, as an area, tenser,' he said.

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang