China urged the Burmese regime and demonstrators demanding change to exercise "restraint" shortly after vetoing moves towards a UN resolution to impose sanctions against a country for which it is the largest trading partner.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said China hoped that both sides would show caution and "properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated". She added: "We hope that Myanmar would be devoted to improving the people's welfare, maintaining national harmony, and properly dealing with its domestic social conflict so as to restore peace at an early date."
As international concern mounted yesterday, the Association of South-east Asian Nations, in an unusually strongly worded statement, demanded that Burma stop using violence and voiced "revulsion" at the killings in Rangoon. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, used a speech to the UN to call on the regime "to allow peaceful protest, encourage national dialogue and promote genuine reconciliation."
The US President, George Bush, called on all countries with influence over Burma to tell the junta to stop using force. But China is widely seen as the only country in a strong enough position to influence Burma's rulers. Indeed, that the regime's response has so far not resulted in even greater violence is believed to be the result of behind-the-scenes lobbying from its far larger neighbour.
But energy-hungry China is concerned with securing Burma's natural resources. Its priority is to obtain more of those resources while maintaining fragile stability in the region ahead of next month's five-yearly Communist Party congress, which will decide important leadership changes and should further cement President Hu Jintao's rule. Also, the Chinese do not want to be seen to be propping up a violent regime prior to the Beijing Olympics next year.
According to some reports, senior Beijing figures have been talking to the generals and the opposition but China cannot risk its strategic goals of using the country to secure oil and gas supplies. Burmese opposition figures said the Chinese authorities had been hedging their bets in case the regime was toppled by the protests that started this summer.
China has lent a lot of money to the Burmese for infrastructure projects, much as it has in Africa. Beijing is keen to secure a key role in the Shwe offshore gasfields near Sittwe, ahead of India which is also bidding for Shwe's natural gas. The Chinese are also involved in dam-building projects and oil pipelines.
Campaigners say China and India are crucial in propping up the regime and that Western sanctions have little impact while these two regional powers continue to battle over Burma's resources. This week India, pursuing its "Look East" policy, signed a $150m (£75m) exploration deal to explore for some of Burma's offshore gas. India has also been involved in training the Burmese armed forces in an effort to clamp down on militants located on its eastern border.
Activists point out that the wave of protests was initially sparked by a rise in domestic fuel prices. Chana Maung of the Thailand-based group, Earth Rights International, said: "The corporations who can influence the military junta know who they are. They must pressure the regime to maintain peace, and respect the rights to speech and association of the people of Burma. Instead, however, they are pursuing their business interests while people's lives are at stake."
In a country that sent in the military to quash its own pro-democracy protesters in 1989, the Beijing leadership is wary of any example these protests could set at home. It is hardly surprising that the story has been largely buried in the Chinese newspapers, but at least it is being covered, in a fashion: "Myanmar authorities have been using restraint in handling the demonstrating monks and have not used force to disperse the demonstrators," said a report by the state-run Xinhua news agency.