satellites have tracked a special North Korean train, the usual form of transport for Mr Kim, entering Chinese territory.
It does not surprise me at all that China would expeditiously summon Kim in such circumstances; China has the most to lose if North Korea tests a nuclear device.
In many ways, China has profited handsomely from its enduring ‘special relationship’ with North Korea; Beijing’s rapprochement with the West meant it was an ideal conduit between the US and the so-called Hermit Kingdom. Consequently, China has acquired a fair slice of diplomatic prestige from its mediating role in such a critical conflict. However, this cachet is predicated on the assumption that China has a powerful hand in North Korea’s internal affairs – a reasonable assumption, considering North Korea’s reliance on Chinese energy.
However, if Kim Jong-il goes against the express wishes of his Chinese patrons and conducts a nuclear weapons trial, Chinese diplomatic credibility will take a severe blow. This would be bad enough for a leadership obsessed with symbolism. For Chinese planners, an even more serious consequence of North Korea exploding an atomic device would be the reaction of its neighbours.
A probable response to such a grave threat would be to increase military spending markedly. If the threat of a conventional arms race in the region is enough to keep Chinese strategists awake at night, consider the most distasteful consequence of such noisy bellicosity; both Japan and South Korea operate a number of nuclear power stations. They too might decide to go nuclear. Certainly Japan has the materials and technical know-how to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly. It may even possess such devices now, on the (very) quiet. China would be aghast at any new declared nuclear states in the region – such entities would dilute China’s hard-power influence in the region considerably. To say that it is in China’s interest that her technically capable neighbours do not reach their full military potential is extreme understatement.
In light of the way the situation is unfolding over the longer term, it looks as though the American effort to involve China so deeply in the conflict resolution process on the Korean peninsula was a masterstroke. Pyongyang can sabre-rattle all it likes; Chinese interests are the best insurance against Kim Jong-il’s rash impulses becoming outright belligerence. Even if Chinese influence in Pyongyang proves to be less convincing than widely thought, the probable result of this will be Western allies in the region growing militarily stronger to deter a North Korean attack. From an American perspective, this has two attractive benefits. Firstly, it can afford to militarily disengage from the region somewhat, as its allies take up the slack. Secondly, these allies will grow militarily stronger relative to Chinese military power. The latter consequence becomes a useful hedge if China develops into a strategic rival in the future. Chinese involvement in this affair is increasingly looking like a win-any-which-way for the Americans, regardless of the outcome – barring North Korea actually bombing someone, that is.