China's premier called on all sides to exert "maximum restraint" over renewed tension on the Korean peninsula, adding that Beijing opposes military provocations in any form.
Wen Jiabao's comments are China's highest-level response so far to North Korea's deadly shelling Tuesday of a South Korean island. In keeping with China's status as North Korea's most important ally, Wen did not mention the North by name or assign blame for the attack.
"China has all along devoted itself to maintaining the peninsula's peace and stability, and opposed military provocations in any forms," Wen said Wednesday on a visit to Russia in remarks that were posted on the Foreign Ministry's website.
"All concerned parties should exert maximum restraint, and the international community should make more efforts conducive to easing up the tensions," Wen said.
Wen also called for a resumption of six-nation talks on ending North Korea's atomic programs that stalled two years ago, saying they were "an essential way to secure stability and denuclearization on the peninsula."
The last round of talks ended in a stalemate in December 2008 after North Korea refused to accept conditions for verifying steps to dismantle its nuclear programs.
Wen's comments came as the Obama administration urged China to act to rein in North Korea, implying that Beijing should leverage its role as the North's chief source of economic assistance and diplomatic support.
China has proven unwilling to use that influence in past crises, fearing it could fuel instability and lead to the collapse of the North Korean government. China's government has shown no indication that this crisis will lead it to act any differently.
Asked Thursday if China would condemn North Korea over the attack, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei repeated a statement from the day before in which he said China "feels pain and regret about an incident causing deaths and property losses and is worried about the developments."
Beijing's stance has taken a toll on relations with key trading partner Seoul, as well as China's desired image as a responsible rising power that plays a constructive role in solving regional dilemmas.
The latest tensions on the Korean peninsula are also backfiring on another Chinese security goal: keeping the U.S. from sailing an aircraft carrier through the Yellow Sea.
On the heels of North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong island that killed four people — two of them civilians — the Obama administration has sent the USS George Washington aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea, between Korea and China, to take part in a previously planned joint exercise with South Korea.
Beijing has railed against previous joint maneuvers in the Yellow Sea — a body of water seen by China as part of its sphere of influence — saying it could escalate tensions. Hard-line nationalists have called for military action if U.S. vessels intrude into Chinese waters.
Asked how China would respond to the announcement, Hong said only that officials have "taken note of the relevant report and express concern."
The Global Times — a popular nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily — said now wasn't the time for war games.
"If sending a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea for military exercises becomes a regular occurrence, the strategic environment of the Yellow Sea will be altered, and Northeast Asia will be rocked by forces even greater than North-South Korean artillery barrages," the newspaper warned in an editorial.Reuse content