AS tensions between North Korea and the United States appear to loosen, Beijing is breathing easier.
But China, feeling increasingly cornered as the crisis over inspection of North Korea's nuclear program has tightened in recent months, fears the crumbling of North Korea, its longtime Communist soul mate.
The North Korean economy desperately needs Chinese-style economic reforms and foreign capital to stay afloat. Pyongyang's collapse would not only lead to the richer south absorbing the north, but also could trigger a tumultuous influx of Korean refugees to Chinese borders.
With Russia no longer providing substantial import subsidies to North Korea, China has become Pyongyang's main food and fuel supplier. Western analysts say North Korea imports some three-quarters of its oil from China.
Beijing hopes to be able to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula and keep North Korea from taunting China's neighbors into accelerating nuclear weapons programs.
Last week, North Korea withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after Pyongyang's continued denying of unlimited access to nuclear sites prompted the Clinton administration to draft proposals for economic sanctions.
Anxious to win recognition as a responsible world power, Beijing fears isolation in the United Nations Security Council on a sanctions vote. Although China officially opposes sanctions against North Korea, it abstained from a recent resolution ending IAEA technical assistance to North Korea's program.
Western analysts say China fears undermining its own international standing as Westerners view the Korean crisis as a test case of how Beijing will use its growing economic and diplomatic power. ``China is engaged in a very delicate balancing act,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing.
China's unsteadiness on North Korea mirrors the uneasiness of Beijing's communist regime at home. Facing economic and social unrest and the imminent confrontation over succession to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Chinese leaders have acted to bolster their position. Two weeks ago, China defied international opinion and conducted a nuclear test.
Of late, Beijing has bent over backward to bolster its old ally, North Korea, welcoming warmly North Korea's Army chief and swiping at the US in the Chinese press.
Last week, Liberation Daily, a newspaper considered the mouthpiece of the Deng family, accused the US of pursuing a ``brink-of-war strategy.'' The newspaper charged that ``the United States is responsible for the deterioration of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. As soon as the atomic energy agency ran into obstacles on the issue of inspection, the United States, unable to hold itself back, threatened Pyongyang with sanctions.
``In the meantime, the United States dispatched aircraft carriers to the peninsula waters while 6 million [South Korean] soldiers are on reserve duty in the largest-ever civil defense exercises,'' the newspaper said in the first comment in a Chinese newspaper. ``Sanctions will not pose a big threat to Pyongyang, and if Pyongyang is irritated by sanctions, which lead to a declaration of war, there won't be any winners.''
But in light of the visit to North Korea by former President Jimmy Carter, Liberation Daily suggested that the US might ``quietly push open the door to talks.''
Chinese officials have told Western diplomats that they are using what leverage they have to pressure North Korea to ease its defiance. But they insist their influence has weakened since South Korea and China established diplomatic ties in 1992 and built a booming trade between the two countries.