China has become more open than ever about its policy regarding North Korea. While some want a change of course as China seeks to keep instability from its door, others think the status quo should be preserved.
"North Korea's third nuclear test is a good moment for China to re-evaluate its longstanding alliance with the Kim dynasty," demanded Deng Yuwen, a guest columnist in the Financial Times newspaper. Deng, as deputy editor of the China's Study Times journal, published by the Beijing's Central Party School, called on China to "abandon North Korea."
Such comments represent a challenge to the decades-long friendship between the two Communist neighbors. Bilateral relations have reached a low point since the end of last year. Not only did North Korea provoke the world with its latest test in February this year, it also launched its Unha-3 rocket to successfully place a satellite in orbit around the Earth.
Beijing, Pyongyang's only true ally, was openly annoyed with its unpredictable neighbor. Its patience had worn thin.
At the last general assembly of the National People's Congress, delegates took part in a debate about Chinese policy with regard to North Korea. The deputy director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, Qiu Yuanping, reported that the debate ran as to whether China should continue to support its neighbor or simply "drop" its alliance with Pyongyang. Her openness was unusual, the leadership in Beijing usually keeping tight-lipped on such matters.
Traditionalists vs. strategists
Within Chinese political circles, opinion is split about how to deal with North Korea. Since the country conducted the second of its nuclear tests in 2009, two schools of thought have emerged.
The so-called traditionalists remain true to the image promoted by the founder of the People's Republic, Mao Zedong, that of a China and North Korea that was "as close as lips and teeth." For them, the idea that Beijing would ever abandon its Communist ally does not even arise. They see the United State as the greatest challenge to Chinese interests in East Asia. The strengthened military presence of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, a shift in strategic focus by US President Barack Obama's administration, is something that is widely perceived in Beijing to be a threat to national security. For China, North Korea represents something of a buffer state between it and South Korea and Japan, both strong US allies.
Until now, China's policy on North Korea has been significantly influenced by the People's Liberation Army. Given the longstanding ties with the country, and the mistrust of the US and its military power that prevails, the Chinese military leadership maintains the more conservative approach.
According to Jia Qingguo, professor of politics at Beijing University, this is an outdated strategy. China should use North Korea as a starting point to work more closely with the US, Jia - who would be described as one of the "strategists" - told the New York Times. The strategists advocate tougher measures by China against North Korea and, at the same time, increased cooperation with the US.
Security expert Zhang Liangui, of the Central Party School in Beijing also calls for China to take a harder line with its neighbor. The belief that Pyongyang could be made to renounce nuclear weapons through a policy of appeasement is naïve, Zhang told the Chinese state newspaper Global Times.
No major change of direction
"The support for tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea should not be interpreted as a basic change in China's attitude," China's outgoing Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stressed. Yang is now responsible for foreign policy in the State Council of the People's Republic.
Experts believe that China possibly fears that the collapse of the regime in North Korea and a possible reunification of the two Koreas could see US troops deployed on the Chinese border. Paul Haenle, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is also head of Beijing's Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, believes that the continuous provocation on the part of Pyongyang could, in the end, lead to an arms race.
"Like the US, both Japan and South Korea will also review their security strategy," said Haenle in an interview with DW. Such an outcome would be contrary to China's interests.
While Western nations are seeking to dissuade North Korea from continuing with its nuclear program, the priority for the Chinese government is to maintain stability, according to Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt from the International Crisis Group.
"Beijing is worried about a direct military confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington," Kleine-Ahlbrandt told DW.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced that Washington was bolstering its missile defense capabilities in response to threats by North Korea.
Any war, or a collapse of the North Korean regime, would likely result in a flood of refugees from North Korea into northeastern China.
Under the leadership of China's new President Xi Jinping, however, it is unlikely there will be any radical changes, said Kleine-Ahlbrandt. "However, Beijing will adopt a harder line with North Korea."