South KoreaÂ – China came under pressure to censure in North Korea at a regional summit on Sunday but gave no sign it would get tough with the hermit state, instead urging everyone to calm tensions over a ship sinking.
Seoul and Tokyo blame North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-il, visited China earlier this month, of torpedoing the Cheonan corvette in March, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
Beijing remains noncommittal, refusing to publicly join international condemnation of Pyongyang, dependent on China to support its destitute economy and frail leader.
Efforts to balance ties with major trade partner South Korea with support for North Korea have made for awkward diplomacy for visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
“We need to dispel the impact of the Cheonan incident, gradually ease tension and especially avoid a clash,” Wen told reporters, standing next to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
At the end of the summit, Wen held to China’s position of avoiding blaming North Korea.
“Without peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, development in east Asia is impossible,” said Wen.
China and Japan are the world’s number two and three economies and, with South Korea, account for close to 20 percent of global economic output.
Wen offered his condolences for the dead sailors, but did not mention North Korea by name.
The leaders of the three big northeast Asian powers met in Seogwipo, a honeymoon resort on the South Korean island of Jeju, for a weekend summit that was meant to boost plans for greater regional cooperation and economic integration.
Instead, the quarrel between North and South Korea has stolen the limelight.
South Korea’s Lee made clear he expected China to come round eventually and back a U.N. Security Council response to the sinking.
“China and Japan have very important roles to play in the international community and I fully expect them to have wisdom on this issue,” he said, in reference to the sinking of the Cheonan.
“I believe we need to take concrete measures on this matter in order to accomplish peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula.”
As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has the power to veto any proposed resolution or statement.
The mounting antagonism between the two Koreas is worrying investors who, though they do not expect war, wanted to be sure that the furious rhetoric does not get out of hand.
At the first session on Saturday, Hatoyama repeated calls to China to act on what Tokyo and Washington have said was convincing evidence of the North’s wrongdoing.
China counts neighboring North Korea as a friend and a buffer against the other, U.S.-allied neighbors. It says it needs to consider the evidence.
Wen held to that position in a meeting with Lee on Friday, but, in a hint he might change tack, said Beijing would protect nobody found responsible for the sinking.
“With regard to the Cheonan, China seems confident that tensions will eventually diminish,” wrote Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, a non-government advisory organization, in an emailed response to questions.
Hatoyama said Japan will back Seoul when it takes the North to the U.N. Security Council. But Pyongyang may not bow even if China goes along with such steps, said Kleine-Ahlbrandt.
“We have seen plenty of cases in which external pressure has not worked on North Korea,” she wrote. “It is therefore questionable whether further measures will have the desired effect in this situation.”
North Korea has warned of war on the Korean peninsula if Seoul imposes sanctions, calling the South Korean government “military gangsters, seized by fever for a war.”