China is again at the center of a storm generated by its ally North Korea's defiant behavior—this time over Pyongyang's decision to launch a rocket into space in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Chinese President Hu Jintao gave a rare assurance on Monday that Beijing would press North Korea to halt the launch, but analysts wonder whether Beijing will join the international community in punishing Pyongyang if it forges ahead with the rocket blast.
North Korea has vowed to go ahead with the launch of the rocket to put a satellite into orbit between April 12 and 16 to mark the centenary of the birth of founding president Kim Il Sung, defying U.N. sanctions on the hardline communist state.
The U.S. said the launch will also violate a deal it reached with North Korea only last month offering food aid in return for a partial nuclear freeze and a missile test moratorium.
Any such violation will obviously be raised at the U.N. Security Council, of which China is a permanent member. China has been a stout defender of North Korea on the Council in the past.
"If, as expected, North Korea launches a missile in mid-April, the issue should go to the U.N. Security Council and the big question would be which China shows up," Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at Washington-based Heritage Foundation, told RFA.
"Is it the one willing to, albeit weakly, enforce international resolutions and punish abhorrent behavior, or will it be the China which serves as North Korea's lawyer?" he asked.
Nuclear-armed North Korea insists it has a right to send a satellite into orbit for "peaceful purposes," but the U.S., Japan, and South Korea say the move is a disguised long-range missile test.
In a blunt message to Beijing before talks with Hu on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Seoul on Monday, U.S. President Barack said he does not believe China's approach toward North Korea is bearing fruit.
It is not working for China to turn "a blind eye to deliberate provocations, trying to paper over these not just provocative words but extraordinarily provocative acts that violate international norms," Obama said.
China, North Korea's neighbor, and most important ally and aid provider, has failed to vigorously enforce U.N. sanctions that have been imposed on Pyongyang for conducting illicit nuclear and missile tests in the past.
It has also sidestepped international efforts to pin down North Korea for various alleged wrongdoings.
In 2010, for example, China refused to accept a foreign inquiry that blamed North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship that left 46 sailors dead in March of that year.
Months later, Beijing refused to agree to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning a deadly North Korean artillery attack on South Korea.
Last year, China blocked the release of a report by a U.N. expert panel on the revelations of a new and highly sophisticated uranium enrichment plant in North Korea set up in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
Analysts say China has helped sustain North Korea's ruling communist dynasty and opposed harsh economic sanctions in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and an influx of refugees across its long border with North Korea.
"China’s role as a sanctions breaker is very clear," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.
He said that from the early 2000's, Sino-North Korean trade has consistently and exponentially increased, and that the imposition of sanctions has produced "no impact" on this growth.
Bilateral trade in the 2006-2011 period jumped nearly threefold from U.S. $1.6 billion to some U.S. $4.4 billion, he said.
Lankov does not expect the situation to change anytime soon.
"[Like] it or not, China has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, in spite of the fact that Beijing is very uncomfortable about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions."
Chinese President Hu himself appears frustrated by North Korea's defiance.
He expressed his concerns over the satellite launch to Obama and South Korean President Lee Yung Bak in talks Monday, according to U.S. and South Korean officials.
In a rare criticism of North Korea, Hu said Pyongyang should feed its people rather than launch rockets, according to the South Korean media.
Hu said North Korea is "wrong to launch a satellite" and that the Chinese government "has been closely communicating with North Korea on this issue several times.”
Beijing's stand "contrasts markedly" with that in April 2009, when North Korea launched its second long-range missile, The Chosun Ilbo, a leading South Korean daily said in an editorial Tuesday.
At that time, China, though urging restraint, said it was difficult to curb what it called Pyongyang's right to peaceful space research, the paper said.
"This time, Beijing is refusing to go along with North Korea's ludicrous claim that the long-range missile it is going to test is a space rocket."
The Hankyoreh newspaper however said that despite Hu’s comments, "it is unclear whether China’s official attitude to North Korea‘s rocket launch has changed."
China’s state news agency Xinhua reported Hu as saying in his talks with Lee that Beijing does not want to see a reversal of "the improved situation" on the Korean Peninsula.
"At present, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is very complicated and sensitive. We do not hope to see a reversal of the hard-won momentum of relaxation of tension on the Peninsula," Hu said without any direct mention of North Korea's rocket launch.
North Korea's two nuclear tests—in 2006 and 2009—followed soon after two attempted missile launches, and experts wonder whether Pyongyang will flex its muscle again this time.
"[So] the threat of unspecified countermeasures needs to be taken seriously," said Jonathan Pollack, an expert on North Korea's nuclear program at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"It is too soon to tell whether these latest warnings from Pyongyang prefigure a major escalation of tensions on the peninsula, including a third nuclear test, but these possibilities cannot be lightly discounted."