The US, Japan, South Korea and Europe have sent strong signs that they will impose tough sanctions against North Korea. China cannot stay out of this issue.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo are anxious to see China change its North Korean policy. Since Pyongyang's nuclear test has damaged China's interests, it's necessary for China to give Pyongyang a certain "punishment." The key problem is what the extent of this punishment should be.
North Korea is determined to possess nuclear power. The US, Japan, South Korea and North Korea failed to achieve détente in their relations in the past Six-Party Talks. Both sides are unlikely to make compromises now.
For North Korea, developing nuclear weapons is a matter of life and death. Even if China stands behind the sanctions proposed by the US, Japan and South Korea, it's unlikely to realize the denuclearization of North Korea. But if Beijing takes a sharp turn in its attitude toward Pyongyang, it will become North Korea's top enemy, which is the desire of the US, Japan and South Korea. China must avoid this situation.
Beijing is not an ally of Pyongyang, but at no point should China turn North Korea into its enemy, especially when it is crossing the nuclear threshold. This should be the strategic bottom line of China's North Korean policy. However, China should express its opposition against Pyongyang's nuclear activities through actions. The international community won't accept China's blind protection of North Korea.
Beijing should punish Pyongyang, but should also try to avoid being the focus of North Korean and global public opinion. The reduction in China's assistance to North Korea shouldn't be more prominent than the increase in sanctions by the US, Japan and South Korea. This should be the bottom line for China to participate in international sanctions against North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula has remained in a Cold War state. The West tends to perceive the North Korea issue from an ideological perspective, and the US has its own strategic considerations on the peninsula. The nuclear issue has become a time bomb. Both North Korea and the US, Japan and South Korea should take the blame for this. It's unreasonable if Washington, Tokyo and Seoul don't make any changes but demand that China change its attitude toward North Korea.
China should stick to being a mediator in the nuclear issue, and not join any side to confront the other. It's possible that tensions on the peninsula will further escalate and a war could break out. China should prepare itself for any extreme situations, which is important for it to safeguard its security and not be held hostage by either side.
China is not in a position to undertake extensive adjustments in its North Korean policy, but it doesn't mean there will be no change. Now, facing a reckless North Korea and an anxious US, Japan and South Korea, China should take actions to maintain its strategy in Northeast Asia.