Beijing's support for Pyongyang is at growing odds with its international responsibilities.
North Korea's long-range missile test has put the hermit kingdom back on America's radar. Experts are already scrutinizing the launch for clues as to Kim Jong Un's grip on power, the state of the country's nuclear program, and even what it could mean for South Korea's looming presidential elections. But in the wake of the test, there's only one country that really matters -- and it's not the one with a 29-year-old at the helm.
North Korea's closest ally will be more important than ever in President Obama's second-term dealings with Pyongyang. In some ways, it'll be more of the same: China has long been a member of the Six Party Talks that the West has used as a bulwark against North Korea's nuclear ambitions. China is among the DPRK's biggest trading partners, and it's where the isolated state gets much of its fuel, raw materials, and finished products, such as cars. As a result, Beijing is often thought to have a good deal of sway over Pyongyang.
But China's traditional mediating role is about to get a major stress-test. For starters, the latest crisis -- if you can call it that -- poses an early challenge for China's new leaders, who were confirmed just a month ago. From the initial diplomatic response, it's hard to tell if President Xi and Prime Minister Li are working on a new approach to North Korea, or if they're simply intent on treading water. Cryptically, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry said yesterday that his government viewed the North's missile launch with regret.