Why China won't rein in its wayward ally
The Western world is once again hoping China will lean on its bellicose ally, North Korea, and prevent it developing a credible nuclear weapon, after the North proclaimed its third test on Tuesday. It will once again be disappointed.
This is not because Xi Jinping, China's new leader, enjoys watching his 29-year-old neighbour, Kim Jong-un, brandish a toy that could obliterate Beijing as readily as Tokyo or Seoul. Tuesday's test took the Disney-loving dictator closer to a miniaturised warhead that can be fitted to his ballistic missiles.
Rather, Beijing and Pyongyang are locked in a loveless dance of shared history, common enemies and domestic political and dynastic imperatives from which neither can easily escape. China protects and nourishes its wayward neighbour as if they were ''as close as lips and teeth'', an old expression of Mao's that has come back into vogue. But it has always been more a grimace than a smile.
''North Korea has always been an untrustworthy nation, China has given it so much aid. It really is a weird state,'' says Zhang Liangui, one of Beijing's leading Korea experts.
And yet the dance continues much as it began in 1950, when the direct boss of Mr Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, led the Chinese troops who saved Kim Il-sung from annihilation in the Korean War.
New archive research in Moscow and Beijing shows how Kim convinced Stalin to let him invade the South, wrongly calculating that then US president Harry Truman would not intervene.
It also shows how Stalin cornered Mao into stumping up the troops. Relations between the three dictators never recovered and the dynamics of the Cold War were set in stone.
China lost 200,000 troops, including Mao's favourite son, in pushing the American-led forces back down to the 38th parallel. But those dead Chinese soldiers do not feature in any North Korean museum, according to Chinese historian Shen Zhihua. China has been airbrushed from North Korean history to make room for the heroic and nation-defining deeds of Kim Il-sung. Airbrushing history, however, is something Chinese leaders can understand.
From China's side of the Yalu River border, the Korean War was imposed on the Chinese people by ''imperialist invaders'', as Mr Xi put it in a 60th-anniversary speech to veterans and troops in 2010. One of history's most costly and pointless military stalemates was ''a great victory in the pursuit of world peace and human progress'', he said.
There is no trust or affection between Beijing and Pyongyang, but they do have an alliance that was forged with ''blood and steel'', as veterans like to put it, resisting ''American aggression''.
The old Cold War patterns of great power rivalry, existential fear and buffer states are re-emerging in more complex form today. Beijing is again locked in a contest with Washington for regional influence, or domination, and Pyongyang is one of its only strategic friends.
Mr Xi would like to demonstrate who has the upper hand in the relationship. He may even enjoy inflicting a modicum of pain. But the gentle tap on the wrist he gave his recalcitrant ally on Tuesday night - ''all sides'' should respond ''calmly, through talks'' - shows the underlying strategic calculus remains unchanged.
In any case, Chinese analysts are convinced North Korea will not give up its nuclear program.