Although North Korea announced Wednesday that its first-ever test of a hydrogen bomb was a response to “U.S. hostility,” many analysts believe the move was really directed at China.
Sino-North Korean relations have been deteriorating since Xi Jinping became president of China in 2013. Beforehand, China exercised a multi-faceted policy toward North Korea in which some key figures supported relations while others took harder stances. Since 2013, however, Xi has been leading a massive centralization of power and is effectively calling all the shots.
Xim Jung Un doesn’t like that.
Bo Zhiyue, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center at Victoria University of Wellington, believes the bomb test was North Korea’s way of telling China that it doesn’t need to play by anyone’s rules.
“In a way, this is a protest against Beijing,” he tells The Washington Post. “They are saying: ‘We can do whatever we want. This shows our independence, and we don’t need your approval.’ ”
Yanmei Xie, senior China analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing, believes China won’t respond too harshly toward its ally.
“For Beijing, a nuclear-armed North Korea is uncomfortable and disturbing, but a regime collapse in Pyongyang, leading to mass chaos next door and potentially a united Korean Peninsula with Washington extending its influence northward to China’s doorstep is downright frightening,” Xie told the Post.
However, China may have to resort to supporting stronger sanctions on the isolated state.
In a statement, The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it “firmly opposes” the test. The statement also reads, “We urge North Korea to fulfill its promise of denuclearization and stop any actions that would worsen the situation.”
Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing was not warned ahead of time about the test and that it will summon Pyongyang’s ambassador in Beijing to deliver a protest.
Nonetheless, China remains North Korea’s largest trading partner. Beijing supplies it with most of its oil and natural gas along with almost half of its foreign aid. Analysts believe China is keeping North Korea afloat out of fear of what would happen if Pyongyang falls.
Still, Paul Haenle of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing believes tension between Xi and Xim can’t be overlooked.
The two have yet to meet face-to-face. Xi even undermined North Korea by meeting the leader of its enemy in the South in 2014.
“I don’t think we can overlook the fact that Xi is a new and fundamentally different kind of Chinese leader,” Haenle said in an interview with the Post. “While analysts have plenty of evidence to justify their assessments that China won’t change course, I think we need to be open to the possibility that China could respond differently this time.”