China's response to news of the North Korean firing of dozens of roundsof artillery at a South Korean island has been cautious so far, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying Tuesday that Beijing had 'noticed the reports' and was 'concerned about the issue.'
With smoke still rising over Yeonpyeong island, no one expects China or any other country to stray beyond the bounds of diplomatic prudence. But how China respondsâ 'or, even more fundamentally, how long it takes China to respondâ 'will be a central focus of global attention once the smoke finally clears.
The last time North Korean aggression led to South Korean bloodshedâ 'the sinking of a South Korean patrol ship, the Cheonan, in March, which an international investigation blamed on Pyongyang--China remained tongue-tied, failing to publicly express condolences for almost a month. That silence flustered, and ultimately frustrated, regional neighbors who look to China to keep North Korea from running too far off the rails.
North Korea's military misadventures put China in a difficult position. Besides being Pyongyang's only ally of consequence, Beijing has a vested interest in supporting the North Korean regime, the collapse of which could send millions of North Korean refugees flooding into China.
At the same time, China has increasingly pushed to be seen as the region's dominant peace keeper and power brokerâ 'a role that requires it to calm nerves made jittery by North Korea's occasional outbursts.
Those competing pressures are nowhere more apparent than in the currently stalled Six-Party Talks, originally initiated by China with the aim of dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The desire to lure countries back to those talks motivates most of China's diplomatic decision making in the region, says John Delury, assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies.
'They've been pretty consistently pushing--in this very gentle Chinese way--to get everybody back to the table,' Mr. Delury tells China Real Time. 'They're implacable in that drive.'
China has yet to accept the results of an investigation by South Korean, U.S., U.K. and other experts that found the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo, although it did concedein July to a UN Security Council statement that condemned the attack (without directly blaming North Korea).
The difficulty for China in this case: Tuesday's exchange of fire took place above water, in full view of military satellites and TV cameras.
Absent Cheonan-level ambiguity, China would seem to face added pressure to say something substantive about the artillery attacks, and to say it reasonably soon.
'I would expect this goes quickly to the U.N. Security Council,' Mr. Delury says. 'So China doesn't have the time to use the usual delay and water-down techniques.'
That said, the Tuesday evening news broadcast of state-run flagship news channel CCTV-1--which led by citing official North Korean media as saying South Korea fired first--suggests leaders in Beijing may yet try to leverage uncertainty to justify reticence.
In the meantime, one reader discussing the attacks on the popular Voice of China bulletin board, wrote what we imagine at least a few of China's leaders are thinking: 'There's nothing good in this fight for China -- North Korea is insane.'
这些彼此矛盾的压力在目前搁置的“六方会谈”中表现的尤为突出，六方会谈原本是中国提出的，旨在消除朝鲜核武器计划。首尔延世大学（Yonsei University）国际学研究生院助理教授德勒里（John Delury）说，中国在该地区的大部分外交决策的动机都是出于拉拢各国重启六方会谈的渴望。