BEIJING -- China's tough-love attitude toward ally North Korea after its nuclear test may bode well for the United States, which is after Beijing's cooperation on Iran, Sudan and economic issues.
Yet the Bush administration's palpable surprise at China's willingness to rebuke North Korea may reveal how easily Washington can misunderstand China and its motivations.
So it may be a stretch to think China's behavior toward impoverished North Korea may apply to oil-rich and nuclear-aspiring Iran, much less pocketbook issues such as trade, currency valuation and market reform.
A good test of whether the U.S. is on firmer ground with China may come in December, when a newly created joint economic panel meets for the first time. It's a gambit by new Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in hopes of repairing relations soured by trade tensions.
President Bush does have a cordial relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. But China's record $202 billion trade surplus with the U.S. has angered members of Congress and U.S. companies, as has Beijing's apparent policy of undervaluing its currency to make Chinese exports cheaper.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spent much of this past week in Asia, has suggested that China's firm line against North Korea points to a larger role for China in matters of importance to the U.S.
Rice said the change will not come "in one fell swoop." But she clearly was pleased by much of what she heard during a hastily arranged visit to Beijing. Her trip had been intended largely a pep talk to encourage a presumably reluctant China to fully enforce U.N. penalties against North Korea for its nuclear test on Oct. 9.
"I don't think that there is any doubt that Chinese attitudes about North Korea are evolving. I cannot conceive of even a short time ago China agreeing to call North Korea's behavior a threat to international peace and security," Rice said Saturday.
A week earlier, China had joined others in the U.N. Security Council in voting for the penalties.
On Friday, Rice noted with a smile that the Chinese foreign minister had that day referred to his country as a global "stakeholder." This term caused a stir last year when the second-ranking State Department official at the time used it to call on China to accept its responsibilities as a world power and live up to its market-opening commitments.
Washington knows China's shift from reflexive protector of North Korea has little or nothing to do with pleasing the U.S., but much to do with self-interest.
China does not want a second nuclear power on its borders (already there is Russia). It especially does not want one that might someday reunify with South Korea, a U.S. ally. Beijing also fears a nuclear North Korea could propel bomb-building programs in Japan and perhaps South Korea and Taiwan.
Those concerns trump China's traditional reluctance to go along with international penalties it sees as an infringement on national sovereignty, or its shared history with North Korea as a fellow communist outpost in Asia.
Beijing apparently has decided it can manage the risk that pushing hard on North Korea could topple its calcified leadership and unleash a flood of hungry refugees over the Chinese border.
Iran, by contrast, has a disputed nuclear program that poses much less threat to China. More important, China has significant trade and other economic ties with Iran and designs on long-term access to Iran's huge oil supply.
China reluctantly has backed Security Council efforts to call Iran to account, but its commitment to meaningful economic penalties is not assured. Acknowledging it needs China and a similarly skeptical Russia to make any punishment stick, the U.S. is crossing its fingers for a Chinese "yes" vote but would settle for an abstention.
P.J. Crowley, a military and national security aide in the Clinton administration, said that as China assumes a more muscular position on the world stage, some U.S. and Chinese interests will overlap, as in North Korea. Some hold the potential for conflict.
China is "only now starting to look outward and exercising its emerging power. But I think this is still a long-term proposition. China, first and foremost, is going to look at its own specific interests, and they will not always coincide with U.S. interests," said Crowley, now an analyst at the Center for American Progress.
Bush took office as a foreign policy realist who would treat China as a "strategic competitor," a phrase chosen to contrast with President Bill Clinton's description of China as a "strategic partner."
The idea was that China is a great power whose interests could sometimes be harnessed to Washington's and sometimes not, and that it was best to be clear-eyed about the difference. That idea survives in some form today, although Bush has softened the terminology.
In April, ahead of a showy White House welcome for Hu, Bush said China is a "very important strategic, you know, friend in many ways," but also a competitor.
Despite administration alarm about China's rapid military buildup, its huge appetite for limited energy resources and the ballooning trade deficit, Bush has made little headway. Bush held five meetings with Hu in a little more than a year at the start of his second term, with few measurable results.