North Korea, China's longtime ally, has vexed Beijing for years with its rocket launches, nuclear tests, kidnapping of Chinese fishermen and other erratic behavior. Yet, Beijing has run interference at the United Nations to temper punishments against Pyongyang, and has even helped Pyongyang circumvent sanctions.
In the wake of North Korea's third nuclear test in February, its reckless threats to strike the United States, and now -- its decision to scrap the armistice that ended the Korean War -- has China finally had enough?
Beijing signed on to sanctions that, in the words of Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will "bite and bite hard." China's ambassador to the U.N. declared Beijing's commitment to "safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.
Beijing also has good reasons that continue to make it reluctant to crack down on its unruly ally. The Chinese perceive that they have a powerful interest in maintaining the status quo. As hard as it is to live with North Korea, Beijing fears it may be harder to live without it.
The Chinese worry that coming down hard on Pyongyang, by cutting off their vital oil or food exports, could trigger a collapse of the North Korean government or other political instability on the peninsula. Beijing's nightmares include a loose nukes problem and a humanitarian disaster.
Beijing also has fears about the effects of a North Korean collapse on the strategic balance in East Asia. If North Korea collapsed and the two Koreas unified, China might find astride its border a unified, U.S.-aligned Korea hosting American troops.
Chinese analysts also commonly argue that North Korea serves as an important distraction for the U.S. military, which might otherwise train its focus on defending Taiwan.
Thus, despite the nuisance that North Korea regularly makes of itself, for all these reasons, it would be sorely missed by Beijing.
But the days of "lips and teeth" (Mao Zedong's's famous statement about the closeness of Sino-North Korean relations) are clearly over. Chinese scholars and analysts increasingly express open frustration with Pyongyang's behavior. In the wake of North Korean piracy against Chinese fishermen, Chinese microblogs overflowed with outrage.