China media takes pro-Pyongyang tone over shellingBeijing (AFP) Nov 24, 2010 - Chinese state media coverage of the Korean peninsula shelling incident avoided criticising Beijing's close ally Pyongyang on Wednesday and even said the episode showed North Korea's "toughness". North Korea fired a deadly barrage of artillery shells onto a South Korean island on Tuesday in one of the most serious border incidents since the 1950-1953 war, sparking global condemnation of Pyongyang. China's official response has so far been relatively tepid, however, while state media have largely avoided pointing the finger at North Korea and taken an occasionally pro-Pyongyang tone. "North Korea showed its toughness during the skirmish," the Global Times said in an editorial that also criticised the "failure of the hard-line policies" of the current South Korean government toward its northern neighbour. Amid growing pressure for Beijing to rein in its close ally, China's only official response has come from a government spokesman who on Tuesday expressed "concern", while saying Beijing sought to "verify" what took place.
Chinese news accounts of the shelling, which provoked retaliatory South Korean fire, also refrained from assigning blame but highlighted North Korean claims that South Korea triggered the exchange. A report in the People's Daily, the Communist Party's print mouthpiece, led off with Pyongyang's assertion that Seoul suddenly began bombarding North Korean territory in a "reckless military provocation". A front-page subheading on the English-language China Daily read: "DPRK accuses ROK of firing first," using the acronyms for the official names of North and South Korea. Coverage of the incident on China Central Television, the Communist government's main broadcast mouthpiece, included prominent play for a North Korean news broadcast railing at South Korea and threatening retaliation. The official Xinhua news agency, meanwhile, questioned how the exchange of fire started.
"Though Seoul blamed Pyongyang for military provocations, there is still no way to confirm who started the shelling attack," it said in a report on the United States and South Korea agreeing to hold joint military exercises soon. China avoids criticising North Korea despite numerous provocations over the years by Pyongyang. Experts say Beijing's approach is guided by a desire to prop up the regime of Kim Jong-Il out of fear that its collapse could spark a flood of refugees into China. It also wants to check US influence in the region, and fears that an eventual unified Korean peninsula would be dominated by South Korea's US-allied government. China also refrained from joining world condemnation of North Korea after it was blamed for a torpedo attack on the South Korean Cheonan naval ship earlier this year that killed 46 sailors. It refused to endorse the findings of an international panel that said North Korea was to blame, saying it would instead conduct its own inquiry. But it has given no updates on any results from its probe.
Beijing (AFP) Nov 24, 2010 China's deep-seated fear of instability along its northeastern border will prevent it from reining in its erratic ally North Korea after Pyongyang's deadly attack on a South Korean island, analysts said. World powers led by the United States have categorically condemned Tuesday's artillery bombardment of South Korea's Yeonpyeong island, leaving China isolated as it merely expressed "concern".
The fact that Tuesday's attack even happened may show that the West has overestimated Beijing's influence over its reclusive neighbour, analysts said.
They added that demands by US President Barack Obama and Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan for China to maximise its leverage over Pyongyang appeared unrealistic.
"The Chinese are in a dilemma in terms of how to respond to this," said Brian Bridges, head of the political science department at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.
"Publicly, it's likely that they will continue not to blame North Korea openly, but behind the scenes, I'm sure they're involved with a lot of very frantic diplomatic activity, trying to get through to Pyongyang and to try and urge them not to do anything more in this dispute," he said.
And while China, which provides the North with desperately-needed financial support, carries some influence over Pyongyang, it also fears that using its economic leverage to pressure North Korea could cause its collapse.
"This is the problem that China continually faces," he said.
Robert Shaw, associate researcher at California's James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, said China's main priority was to maintain stability in the region.
"I cannot envisage the Chinese government sanctioning this type of military activity on the part of North Korea", he told AFP. "That would not be in line with China's objectives in the region, which are very simply stability."
China, which has also been locked in territorial and other disputes with Japan, is anxious to maintain the status quo along its northeastern border.
On the one hand it can ill afford an influx of North Korean refugees, while it is similarly keen to avoid seeing US troops posted along the border in the event that the North implodes and the Korean peninsula is reunified.
Beijing's lukewarm reaction to Tuesday's bombardment, in which two marines and two civilians died, echoed its response when the North was blamed for torpedoing a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
China then refrained from criticising Pyongyang and said it wanted to conduct its own inquiry into the sinking, the results of which have yet to be released.
"I am sure the South Korean government was disappointed" by China's reaction to Tuesday's bombardment, said Bridges.
Beijing's tepid response also likely fell short of Washington's expectations and the United States would be expected to raise the question with Hu Jintao when the Chinese president visits in January.
"China's boilerplate calls for 'dialogue' and a return to the stalled (and now quite empty) six party (nuclear) talks will ring hollow in Seoul and Washington," said the Eurasia Group, a collection of US-based political consultants.
"Beijing is likely to (privately) tell North Korea to de-escalate. But China's track record of restraining North Korea is very poor indeed", they wrote in a paper on Wednesday.
In the past four years, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, walked out of the Chinese-hosted six nation talks on scrapping its nuclear programme, sunk a South Korean warship and now bombarded a South Korean island.
"There is a tendency, particularly in the US and the West, to overestimate China's direct influence over North Korea," said Shaw.