The Hermit Kingdom is going through a leadership transition, from dying dictator Kim Jong Il to his 26-year-old son, Kim Jong Un. Korea analysts contend Pyongyang is behaving even more aggressively than usual so as to bolster young Kim's standing.
The Chinese fear a North Korean collapse would destabilize their border - and destroy a state that buffers it from U.S. military forces in South Korea. So they put up with Pyongyang's reckless acts.
"China probably thinks North Korea won't cross any red lines and things won't blow up," says the University of Pennsylvania's Jacques deLisle, a China expert. "They think North Korea will muddle through, and eventually follow the Chinese route to economic reform."
But what if the Chinese are wrong?
North Korea has repeatedly rejected market reforms, and it remains an economic basket case. In 2009, Pyongyang quit six-party talks that offered U.S. recognition and substantial aid if it would give up its nuclear program. Before quitting the talks, the North Koreans incurred U.N. condemnation by testing a missile; they conducted a nuclear test soon afterward.
Recently, North Korea revealed it has a fully developed program to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons, in addition to its plutonium program. Most experts say they believe it no longer wants to give up its nukes but is angling to be recognized as a full nuclear power.
Yet China does little to rein in its ally. When North Korean torpedoes sank a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 crewmen, Beijing refused even to acknowledge that the North was to blame.
After the latest North Korean attack on the South Korean island, Chinese officials stayed "neutral" and blocked the U.N. Security Council from condemning Pyongyang. Only when the Obama administration sent an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea to support South Korea did Beijing make an inadequate gesture, suggesting a return to a new version of the failed six-party talks.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen rightly responded last week: "Beijing's call for consultations will not substitute for action." There's no point in renewing talks until China is ready to restrain its reckless neighbor.
"China is uniquely placed to guide North Korea to a less dangerous place," Mullen added. Although it claims that its leverage on Pyongyang is limited, Big Brother China has the means to exert severe pressure - if it chooses to act.
Of course, Chinese officials talk a good game about wanting a peaceful Korean peninsula and an end to North Korea's nuclear program. But they did little to make the six-party talks successful. A senior South Korean official complained in a cable revealed by WikiLeaks that Beijing's chief representative to the talks was "incompetent" and "knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about non-proliferation."
China appears to have turned a blind eye to North Korean efforts to export its weapons technology for hard currency: Another WikiLeaks cable indicates Beijing may have allowed North Korean sales of long-range missiles or missile parts to transit to Iran via Beijing airport. Down this road lies the export of fissile material or even nuclear weapons themselves.
Indeed, the North Korea crisis will test whether China has any desire to play a constructive leadership role in Asia. Most of China's neighbors are already unnerved by its aggressive behavior in disputes over territorial waters - behavior that undercuts efforts to sell itself as a benign power.
China's coddling of Pyongyang has further alarmed the public in Japan and South Korea. Beijing is driving Asian nations to tighten their security ties with Washington.
A visionary China would work with Japan, South Korea, and the United States to facilitate a peaceful Korean transition, one that wouldn't threaten Chinese interests. Otherwise, Chinese officials may be blindsided by a war provoked by North Korea, or by its sudden collapse.
A farsighted Beijing would cease playing Chinese roulette and be proactive on North Korea. This would entail risk, but the odds are far more favorable for China than the shortsighted game it is playing, which leaves the gun in Pyongyang's hands.
Trudy Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.