After every illicit nuclear or missile test by North Korea, China comes under criticism from the international community for doing very little to rein in its defiant neighbor and ally.
But Chinese President Hu Jintao's administration skillfully wriggles out of the embarrassing situations. It scolds Pyongyang but skips out of any deal that imposes strict sanctions against the nuclear renegade.
Will it be different this time under the new ruling Chinese Communist Party boss Xi Jinping?
North Korea's nuclear test on Tuesday, its third since 2006, came despite strong warnings against any such action from Beijing, its major diplomatic and economic benefactor.
In addition, the Chinese state media had threatened young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that his regime would pay "a heavy price" and risk aid cuts if it fired a nuclear device.
So, it was not surprising that hours after the nuclear blast, China joined other members of the U.N. Security Council in strongly condemning the North Korean action. It also summoned the North Korean ambassador in Beijing and protested sternly against the test.
But experts wonder how far the Xi leadership will be willing to go in backing stricter sanctions against Pyongyang at the Security Council over the coming days.
"The third nuclear test puts China’s new leadership on the hot seat," Northeast Asia experts Richard Bush and Jonathan Pollack of the Washington-based Brookings Institution said in a report.
Under Hu, the experts said, Beijing had multiple objectives in its North Korea strategy: restrain North Korea's provocations; limit the impact of multilateral sanctions so that they do not destabilize the North Korean regime; provide economic support to Pyongyang to enhance stability and encourage better behavior; and facilitate a diplomatic approach for managing the problem, if not solving it.
"By testing in defiance of China’s wishes, Pyongyang ... is betting that Beijing’s threats of punishment, [as under Hu], are all bark and no bite," they said.
"In effect, it is testing China’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping. Will he cooperate with Washington in tightening sanctions and withdraw material and political benefits to Kim Jong Un? Or will Xi accommodate to a new status quo?"
Beijing's leadership will have to grapple with these questions during the current Chinese New Year holiday—and this itself may put North Korea in a bad light.
"In the world of diplomacy, little things do matter and conducting the test during the Chinese New Year will be viewed by Beijing as extremely insulting, and perhaps will lead them to take quiet punitive but temporary measures," said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asia policy.
"Chinese leaders cannot be happy with this test," he said.
Cha, now the Korea chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said U.N. member states are looking to China to curtail undisclosed amounts of economic and energy assistance to North Korea.
Some experts believe China will back firm international sanctions against North Korea because the test has been a major embarrassment to Beijing.
China’s inability to dissuade North Korea from carrying through with the nuclear test reveals Beijing’s limited influence over Pyongyang’s actions "in unusually stark terms,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, New York-based Asia Society’s Vice President of Global Policy Programs.
“Bluntly put, North Korea’s new young leader Kim Jong Un has embarrassed China’s leadership with this latest provocation," she said.
"Beijing will likely stop short of imposing any unilateral sanctions or cutting back on aid, but this test leaves China little choice but to support stronger international sanctions," she said.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is spearheading moves at the U.N. Security Council to impose stiff sanctions on North Korea. State Department officials say Washington had been discussing with Beijing on possible Pyongyang provocations even before the test.
"[W]e’ve been exchanging notes back and forth at all levels about the possibility that the DPRK [North Korea] would take another provocative step along the lines of the step that they took today," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was one of the first counterparts that new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to when he took up his duties this month, and North Korean concerns did come up in their phone call, she said.
Raises threat to new level
The nuclear test, combined with Pyongyang’s ongoing work on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could reach the United States, raises the North Korean threat to a new level for the Obama administration.
The United States should "more strongly" press China for effective sanctions, said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
He said it should insist that the next U.N. resolution against North Korea include Chapter VII, Article 42 of the U.N. Charter, a provision which allows for enforcement of sanctions by military means, enabling naval ships to intercept and board North Korean ships suspected of transporting precluded nuclear, missile, and conventional arms, components, or technology.
"Because the U.N. Security Council has fallen victim to Chinese obstructionism, it is past time for the United States to initiate unilateral action and call upon other nations to follow," Klingner said.
He suggested that the Obama Administration publicly identify and target all North Korean and other nations’ banks, businesses, and government entities "culpable" in violating U.N. resolutions and international law.
Nuclear experts say the time may have come for swift efforts to stop North Korea’s foreign procurements for its nuclear programs, especially from China, and increase efforts to halt its proliferation financing efforts.
"North Korea’s efforts to procure nuclear and dual-use goods and raw materials for its nuclear programs must be addressed by targeted countries through improved United Nations sanctions resolutions and domestic trade control laws and the enforcement of those measures," experts at the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in a report.
"North Korea continues to improve its nuclear programs through its access to such goods and materials, particularly through trading companies and citizens located in neighboring China," said the experts, David Albright and Andrea Stricker.
They suggested joint initiatives between China and the United States and its key Asian allies.
"There are signs that China is listening more to U.S. concerns about North Korea’s nuclear provocations," Albright and Stricker said.
"A goal must be the United States developing common positions with China, along with South Korea and Japan, making it harder for North Korea to play China against the United States."