BEIJING — As tensions rose between South and North Korea this week to an extent seldom seen since the 1950-53 war, the international community waited to see what the world's fastest rising power, China, would do. So far, the answer is: not much.
The crisis escalated Thursday, when Pyongyang announced that it was scrapping a pact to prevent accidental attacks on the two countries' disputed western sea border. The North Korean military threatened to launch an immediate "physical strike" on any South Korean ships in its waters. South Korea, meanwhile, staged large anti-submarine drills.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, however, offered only boilerplate rhetoric in response: "Proper handling of the issue is conducive to peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula."
It was in keeping with the Chinese government's refusal to take a stand since the crisis erupted in March with the mysterious attack that sank the South Korean warship Cheonan and killed 46 sailors.
When South Korea released a report last week, authored with the help of Western experts, that found conclusively that North Korea had torpedoed the Cheonan, China, the only nation with any influence on North Korea, said hardly a word.
On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said his country was cutting almost all trade with the North and would block North Korean vessels from its waters. The North said it would cease communications with Seoul. China merely asked for calm.
As the last remaining ally of North Korea, an economic partner of South Korea and a regional diplomatic, military and economic giant, Beijing is in a unique position to help tamp down the tensions.
Chinese analysts, though, say the row has put China in a diplomatic bind between nations with which it has friendly relations. Western observers say the situation seems to have exposed the limits of Chinese foreign policy.
South Korea plans to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council, but Chinese analysts have said they don't think that Beijing will agree to sanctions that punish the North. At most, it will accede to a presidential statement from the council, which carries far less weight, said a South Korean diplomat in Washington who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
While those who are familiar with the situation don't expect war, tension is growing as concerns rise.
"The current crisis triggered by the incident is very, very unique in the whole history after 1953 ... we've never seen such a high level of confrontational sentiments," said Yang Xiyu, a senior expert at a Chinese Foreign Ministry policy institute and the ministry's former director of the office for Korean Peninsula issues. "That's the major reason I'm worried."
Earlier this month, Beijing hosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who met with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
While Beijing's backing of Kim's dictatorship may have made sense in the past because of the countries' intertwined histories, communist ideology and struggles, it now risks straining China's ties with the rest of the region and the broader international community. Much of the world was perplexed — if not aghast — when Beijing gave Kim an audience with Hu less than two months after the Cheonan torpedoing.
"China is diplomatically boxed in," said Malcolm Cook, the East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute, an Australian policy-research organization.
On one hand, there are decades of close relations with North Korea and a diplomatic stance defined by such alliances, Cook said. On the other, he said, China is now "too large and too influential globally ... to be able to hang on to that."
As was the case in the debate about Iran sanctions, Chinese analysts have called for dialogue rather than sanctions, claimed the United States is being too aggressive and questioned whether there's sufficient proof of guilt.
"I expect more evidence or more convincing proof to indicate the real reasons for the terrible and sad incident" of the warship sinking, said Yang, the analyst in Beijing.
That sentiment has bewildered South Korea and opened the possibility that other countries in the region will grow more wary of Chinese leadership.
"If you're going to continue to stand by what is clearly a rogue state ... that's not very becoming of an international leader," said Lee Jung-hoon, the dean of international education at Seoul's Yonsei University and a North Korea expert.
South Korea has been careful not to confront China, but the United States, with more than 28,000 troops in South Korea, has taken the diplomatic lead. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited regional ally Tokyo before going to Beijing this week, then flew to Seoul to meet with officials there. While she was in China, she called for Chinese cooperation on the Korean tensions. China's premier, Wen Jiabao, is scheduled to meet with the South Korean president in Seoul on Friday.
"I guess they don't mind to make more pressure for China," said Yu Yingli, a research fellow in the department of Asia-Pacific studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
Lee, the expert in Seoul, said, "Fortunately, the United States has been very adroit and persistent in pushing China."
Chinese experts say there's good reason not to abandon North Korea.
"If China gives up North Korea and leaves them alone to face the pressure from South Korea and the United States, I think the situation will be very serious," Yu said. "North Korea could react by another nuclear test, by some very bad things. ... There will be a situation that everybody won't like."
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)
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