A day after North Korea fired more than 100 rounds of artillery shells on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, leaving at least two marines and two civilians dead, the international community began mobilising to find a suitable diplomatic response to the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Even as the United States and South Korea announced plans to shortly hold joint military exercises with the U.S. committing to dispatch an aircraft carrier to the region, much attention on Wednesday focused on the reaction of North Korea's only major ally — Beijing.

The latest round of tensions has presented China with a diplomatic balancing act, as it looks to stand together with an international response as well as consider its strategic interests in preserving relations with its neighbour and long-time ally.

Chinese officials and analysts privately expressed dismay over Tuesday's events, indicating they were taken by surprise and feared further derailing of the resumption of the Six Party Talks, which China has been pushing for. Analysts here also expected China to come under increased international pressure to both influence and condemn the North, which China has recently been either reluctant or unable to do.

“The problem for China is that the U.S. and South Korea think our relations with the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which the North officially goes by] are always very good,” Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies told The Hindu. “It's almost as if China, in their eyes, is the North's lawyer.”

Ms. Gong said China's priority was to ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, as well as help resume the stalled talks towards denuclearisation, which the North quit two years ago after conducting missile tests. However, she noted the North's recent moves had resulted in “problems beyond China's abilities”. “Yes, China has good relations with DPRK, but the problem is sometimes the DPRK doesn't listen to us,” she said.

In March, China came under pressure to condemn the North for the alleged torpedoing of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, which left 46 sailors dead. The North denied responsibility for the attack, and Chinese officials have questioned the investigation carried out by the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

But even in China, many analysts have increasingly questioned the costs of strategic relationship with the isolated and unpredictable neighbour. Last year, Beijing came under pressure at home after the North unexpectedly conducted a nuclear test, in violation of international laws, less than 100 km away from its border with China. Beijing said then it “resolutely opposed” the tests, in a rare public condemnation of the North.

North Korea is heavily reliant on China for both financial and food aid, which China has been reluctant to curtail fearing instability on its eastern border and a possible influx of refugees.

Given these considerations, Ms. Gong said it would be “wrong” of the West to ask China to bear the burden of bringing its neighbour in line. China would, however, support any move under the umbrella of the United Nations to tackle the issue, she added.

Chinese media on Wednesday refrained from blaming the crisis on the North, which has maintained that its firing on the populated Yellow Sea island was in response to the South conducting live-ammunition drills despite its warnings.

In an editorial headlined “Artillery dialogue a tragedy in North-East Asia”, the official Global Times newspaper stopped well short of blaming the North for the crisis, only saying it showed “toughness”.

The newspaper did, however, accuse the “hard-line policies of the Lee Myung-Bak administration” in Seoul and earlier planned joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea for triggering the events.

“South Korea and China are the countries that care the most about stability of North Korea, while the U.S. and Japan are looking after their own interests in the region,” it said. “Perhaps there is an invisible hand throwing the Peninsula's dynamics into disorder.”

Keywords: Korean row

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