BEIJING -- China's reaction to North Korea's announcement of a nuclear test was unusually swift and forceful. Within hours Monday, the usually slow to react Beijing government characterized Pyongyang's action as hanran, meaning brazen, a term generally reserved for its worst enemies.
By midweek, though, China was sounding more like its old self - calling for dialogue, eschewing confrontation and warning against tough sanctions, even as it redoubled efforts to coax its longtime ally back to the negotiating table.
As North Korea's top supplier of energy and food, Beijing is viewed as the key to a tough international response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's provocation. And Washington argues that China must be a "responsible stakeholder" if it wants a leading role in international society.
But with its go-slow stance, Beijing has been exposed to foreign criticism that it is squandering a golden opportunity to display global leadership.
The problem, analysts say, is that China draws much different conclusions than Washington, even in the middle of a nuclear crisis, because it has a very different idea of what is important and what it needs to survive and prosper.
While the United States and Europe view a nuclear North Korea as a threat to global order, China sees it less as a problem in its own right than as a catalyst for other headaches, including the possible destabilization of the Korean peninsula and militarization of Japan.
"America wants to see North Korea go away, representing the final victory of the Cold War," said Alexandre Mansourov, a security expert with the Asia- Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "China's interests, however, lie in keeping North Korea in place. China's not doing this because it loves Kim Jong Il, but because it wants the buffer to remain."
"There's a big perception gap," said Jin Linbo, Asia-Pacific director at Beijing's China Institute of International Studies. "China has a different assessment of the danger."
Beijing already lives in a region where nuclear neighbors are abundant. It nearly went to war with Russia in the 1960s and later watched Pakistan and rival India join the nuclear club. China is not that impressed by Pyongyang's nuclear technology, analysts say, nor does it see itself as an intended target.
China's position bears similarities to that of the United States from the Civil War to World War I, says Jin Canrong, vice dean of foreign relations at Beijing's Renmin University. It is industrializing rapidly, weathering a huge population shift from rural to urban areas and is grappling with enormous social problems related to rising expectations and a widening wealth gap.
In the way America was primarily isolationist as it focused on internal development, China's leadership seeks enough time and international stability to lift its people out of poverty, ease societal stresses and keep enough money flowing to ensure the continued monopoly of the Communist Party.
From China's perspective, the danger of Washington destabilizing the region is greater than that from a nuclear North Korea. Beijing apparently believes it needs North Korea as a buffer against the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Beijing, along with Russia, fears that sanctions could lead to regime change in Pyongyang and growing U.S. influence in their backyard. Sanctions presaged the U.S.-led NATO removal of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and the 2003 Iraq invasion that unseated Saddam Hussein.
If Kim fell, the risk of refugees flooding across the border into China is a frightening economic and social prospect.
Also weighing on China's mind is a fear that precipitate action could disrupt its courtship of South Korea, analysts say. If the Pyongyang regime collapses, the United States would retain significant influence over a Seoul-dominated Korean peninsula.
Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.