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Norks Test Nuke, Provoke China, US

North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in six years this morning, literally and figuratively sending shockwaves through the Asia Pacific. Experts are saying this most recent test was larger than the previous two, perhaps in the six to seven kiloton range.

The Nork nuke test challenges both Xi Jinping and Barack Obama for different reasons. For Xi, it’s a test of China’s influence and his authority as a tiny neighboring state flouts China in a way that destabilizes China’s regional policies. China looks weak and unreliable, and in Japan the drift toward more nationalist and anti-China policy is likely to grow.

For Barack Obama, who reportedly is considering announcing a reduction in America’s nuclear arsenal in tonight’s State of the Union address, it’s a test of whether his approach to an issue he’s repeatedly signaled is at the top of his agenda can work. Reducing nuclear weapons and preventing proliferation is the goal; working through the UN and sanctions rather than military methods is the chosen strategy. Both North Korea and Iran are so far defiant and it is not at all clear that President Obama has a clear vision about what happens now.

Both Xi and Obama would benefit enormously if an effective international response to North Korea combined with private Chinese arm twisting in Pyongyang resulted in a change, but it is far from certain that the United States and China are ready and able for the kind of collaboration this would require. China prefers, all things being equal, the status quo in Pyongyang to regime change. It fears that Korean unification would bring U.S. troops back into the north; it worries about instability among the Korean population in Manchuria; and it worries about the policies and intentions of a united Korea tied in an alliance to the U.S.

These considerations, plus a sense in Beijing that the current government in North Korea is pretty much in control of the country, makes China reluctant to take a strong stand against Pyongyang, and keeps China and the U.S. from coordinating their policies more effectively. The Norks have been very good at working the system and at reading China’s limits and hesitations.

And now, there’s a new factor: the rising tension in the East China Sea raises the stakes for everyone. The North Koreans probably believe that at this moment they have more leverage over China: embroiled in a confrontation with Japan and its relations with the U.S. strained over various maritime issues, China will be even more reluctant than usual to take actions that could alienate or destabilize its one remaining regional ally.

What happens in the next few weeks will tell us whether the new test has galvanized an effective response from the U.S. and China. Pyongyang is betting that it will get away with yet another provocation. It may well be right.

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