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China Avoids Criticizing Either Korea in Latest Confrontation

South Koreans surrounded by relatives and media as they arrive at port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, 24 Nov 2010
South Koreans surrounded by relatives and media as they arrive at port in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, 24 Nov 2010

While many Western governments and news reports blame North Korea for provoking the latest clash on the Korean peninsula, Chinese media have refrained from directly criticizing either North or South Korea.

Chinese news reports Wednesday were filled with descriptions of North and South Korea's exchange of fire a day earlier. But - although many Western media report Seoul's allegation that North Korea provoked the latest clash - the Chinese reports stopped short of pointing fingers.

There was little official comment in Chinese reports on the confrontation, although the Global Times newspaper did run an editorial praising North Korea for showing "toughness."

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, says this kind of Chinese media coverage does not surprise him.

"Well, it's typical based on the recent cases of this type of activity by North Korea, that the Chinese will focus on presenting North Korea's actions in the best possible light, and to emphasize the need for the other countries, other than North Korea, to be patient and careful in their response, playing a protective role," he said.

Roy says he thinks China's main goal is to prop up a "tenuous" leadership in neighboring North Korea.

"This gets at China's main interest, which is preserving stability on this important border, avoiding a collapse of the North Korean regime, and shielding North Korea from the kind of international pressure they fear might push this regime over the edge," added Roy.

After the shelling began Tuesday, China's government only expressed concern and urged both North and South Korea to work to preserve peace. Many other countries, led by the United States, condemned North Korea for violence they say it began.

Some regional political experts think China is caught in the middle - between North Korea, its neighbor and ally, and an angry international community that urges Beijing to wield more influence over Pyongyang.

Cai Jian, a Korean Studies professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, says criticism that China should do more to pressure North Korea is unfair.

Cai says in reality China is not happy with all of North Korea's actions.

But he says China supports North Korea because it is especially aware of the strengthened alliance between the United States and South Korea.

Cai says China is working to ensure the strategic balance in the region.

He adds that right now, China will tolerate some things from North Korea, and that the limits to its patience may only be reached when North Korean actions threaten Chinese interests.