For weeks, the party leadership in Beijing had trumpeted the Brics summit as a chance to herald China’s vision for the group of emerging nations.
The meeting of the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in Fujian province was a big deal for Beijing.
So when North Korea conducted a nuclear test, its largest yet, as the summit was about to start on Sunday it was a slap in the face to the president, Xi Jinping.
This is a crucial time for the Chinese leadership and Kim Jong-un’s provocation highlights Beijing’s lack of diplomatic firepower. It has options, but only one that it truly favors.
Any action against Kim depends on Xi’s position at home. This, in turn depends on a pivotal 19th Communist Party congress next month.
Congresses occur every five years and this one marks the end of Xi’s first five-year term in office and more intriguingly the start of his second term. He has to show he adheres to core party ideology while balancing the needs of an ever-expanding economy with a growing global presence.
To do this he has to pack the leadership with as many allies as he can to protect his back and to secure his influence when, or indeed if, he steps down in five years.
In February, Beijing halted imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year — ending a US$1 billion annual harvest for North Korea’s budget.
To North Korea’s dismay, China is now fully compliant with the unprecedented UN sanctions it signed up to in March 2016. Pyongyang responded by accusing Beijing of “dancing to the tune of the US”.
Nonetheless, China has limited but credible options.
One is to further tighten sanctions by targeting North Korean exports of textiles and clothing. Not headline grabbing but it would hurt Pyongyang. Many items of clothing with a “Made in China” label are actually made in North Korea.
Banning North Koreans from working in China, hitting the pockets of 80,000 or so North Koreans would also send a strong message.
And totally cutting off North Korea’s crude oil supply – 90 per cent already has been – would signal a complete rupture in relations. But this creates a nightmare scenario for Beijing. A massive refugee and security crisis just a few hundred kilometers from the Chinese capital, igniting massive social unrest.
China has one other option, the favored one. Get North Korea and the US talking. While the US blames China for not reining in its “vassal state”, the Chinese reply that it is the US that needs to take the lead. Only negotiations can solve this crisis, they say. The Chinese are pressing the US to push for a diplomatic resolution or at least try get one. There is a weariness in Beijing as Washington accuses it of not doing enough. From Beijing’s perspective, that is an accusation that can be turned on the Americans. If the crisis is to be resolved, then at some point the US and North Korea have to jaw-jaw. It may even be, some suggest in Beijing, that the inconvenient truth may be that it is a convenient crisis for US military strategists.
All the while, in the back of the minds of the Beijing political elite is the timing of the congress. It starts on October 18. Considering what North Korea did to the Brics summit, Beijing is worried that something bigger may derail its congress and undermine Xi’s position.