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China's diplomatic balance

In a statement released tonight over Tuesday’s skirmish between North and South Korea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “China pays great attention to the event.  We feel grieved and regretful about the casualties and property losses, and feel worried about its development.” 

A muted response, especially in stark contrast to Washington’s condemnation, but analysts here say Beijing’s concerns should not be underestimated.

Maintaining peace and stability in the region – as clichéd or obvious as it might sound – is paramount to the Chinese central government. 

“The two pillars which supported China’s political and economic transformation of the three decades over the past has been maintaining stability at home and keeping peace in the world,” said Victor Gao, an international relations expert based in Beijing.  “Therefore China has a deep abhorrence to any destabilizing act by any country in this part of the world.”

And news that the U.S. and South Korea will hold another round of joint military and naval exercises is especially alarming for Beijing, according to Chinese political analysts.  “The more such exercises there are, the more probably you will create tensions and maybe one side like North Korea will overreact,” said Gao.

China can't read Pyongyang's tea leaves either
Just as Beijing’s concerns shouldn’t be underestimated, nor should its ability to rein in Pyongyang be overestimated.

As North Korea’s staunchest ally and main economic supporter, China is widely regarded as the only power able to keep its smaller neighbor in check.

“North Korea is very independent.  It has its own way of doing things and it has its own perception of risks and threats, which may be very different from China’s,” said Gao.

“China can’t restrain North Korea for the same reason the U.S. can’t control Israel, for example,” argued Professor Yan Xuetong, an international security expert at Tsinghua University. “North Korea and Israel can make military decisions that are beyond the control of China or the U.S.”

The best solution as far as Beijing is concerned, according to most analysts, is to work diplomatically within the six-party framework – a solution Washington finds untenable.

Regardless, there is one area in which both China and the U.S. seem to be in agreement. 

Analysts in Beijing admit that what’s happening in their northern neighbor remains a mystery to the Chinese just as it does to everyone else.

“I don’t think [North Korea] is even very transparent to China,” said Gao.

With additional reporting from Eric Baculinao.