As concerns grow over North Korea's reported plans to conduct a third nuclear test in the wake of its failed rocket launch on Friday, its only ally China has found itself walking a tightrope between standing by its neighbour and addressing increasing global anxieties.

Even as China has repeated calls for restraint and liaised with regional and Western powers as tensions rise, State-run media on Saturday also expressed renewed fears that recent events will provide an opportunity for the U.S., Japan and South Korea to strengthen a military alliance that Chinese analysts view as a containment strategy. Reflecting the tricky balancing act China faces, the government last week took an unexpected step of publicly calling on the North to not go ahead with Friday's launch, even as Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for calm following talks with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.

“After North Korea's announcement, this was the first time that China has directly asked them to stop doing something and even discussed the issue with South Korea and Japan,” Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told The Hindu in an interview. That the North went ahead with the launch underscored China's limited influence, said Ms. Gong.

While China does not want the North to conduct a third nuclear test, it is, however, also mindful of the North's importance as a crucial strategic buffer. Walking this diplomatic tightrope has become ever harder for Beijing in recent years, said Ms. Gong, in the wake of tensions in 2010 sparked by the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, and the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. “In 2010, China suffered a lot because of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong issues,” she said. “A lot of people think China should do quite a lot, to keep the Korean Peninsula stable and not allow the North to do anything.”

Following Friday's failed launch, which was part of elaborate plans to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il-sung, the North may go ahead with a third nuclear test, South Korean officials have said, citing satellite images that have shown a tunnel being dug at the site of previous tests. Whether the moves are a bargaining tool or actual plans for a test are still unclear.

Friday's launch was also meant to consolidate the position of the young and inexperienced new DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, who took over in December following the death of his father Kim Jong-il. This week, the younger Kim was also confirmed as the supreme leader and “eternal chairman”. The North planned to mark 2012 as the year it becomes a “strong and prosperous” nation. With continuing food shortages and economic strife, it has focused on boosting its military strength. Pyongyang's official Korea Central News Agency unexpectedly acknowledged that the launch, for which the reclusive country had opened its doors to select foreign media, had failed.

“Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's Kookmin University, told Reuters.

China's Party-run Global Times newspaper warned in an editorial that the North could now “take new, unpredictable actions” and called on the U.S., Japan and South Korea to “avoid aggravating current tensions”.

The State-run Xinhua news agency issued a similar commentary, saying the U.S. was “also taking advantage of the launch, to persuade Japan, South Korea and Australia to create a regional missile shield”. “The U.S. and its allies have also established first and second island chains to contain China, and the U.S. intends to undermine China's missile penetration probability and reinforce its own strike capability,” the commentary said.

China, the Global Times acknowledged, had “limited choices in its diplomacy”. “It should neither expect to exert much influence on the region's dynamics,” the paper said, “nor make any promise to relevant parties.”

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