North Korea's sole ally is under pressure to restrain Pyongyang but it has its own regional concerns. Analysts say Beijing's influence is not absolute.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Chinese leader Hu Jintao met in May
China is separated from North Korea by the Yalu River near the northern Chinese city of Dandong. However, this river has proven to be less a barrier than a link between the two countries.
The bridge over the river has seen goods worth more than one billion US dollars pass over it since the last six months. North Korea has been dependent on China for basic supplies and oil for decades.
The Yalu River at Dandong separates China from North Korea
The two countries signed a friendship treaty in 1961 and Pyongyang has had Beijing's tacit support ever since. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has already visited China twice this year.
Earlier this year, China used its veto in the United Nations Security Council against an international bid to enforce stronger sanctions against North Korea.
China' s influence should not be overestimated
However, Niu Jun from the School of International Studies at Peking University says that although "China has more influence on North Korea than any other country, this influence is not absolute."
British North Korea expert Jasper Becker agrees: "Kim Jong-il doesn't trust the Chinese. They are not involved in his inner circle or his decision-making process. They are excluded from it and he’s definitely opposed to the Chinese way."
China is worried that there will be a deluge of refugees if North Korea collapses
However, China is worried that a war or the collapse of the North Korean regime will lead to a deluge of refugees from across the border. "We will do our utmost to prevent that," says Shi Yinhong from Peking University.
Korean unification is also not an option for China. If the border between the two divided countries were to fall, US troops would practically be on the Chinese border. This is why Beijing is intent on maintaining the status quo, even if Beijing has little sympathy for Kim Jong-il and his family.
Beijing has refused to condemn North Korea for Tuesday’s artillery attacks but it did urge both sides to show "calm and restraint" and to sit down for talks as soon as possible.
Japan calls on Beijing to restrain Pyongyang
North Korea's neighbor Japan also tried to ease the tension, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan calling on China to work with other partners and restrain Pyongyang.
In a telephone conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, Kan underlined his country's strong ties with Washington and Seoul.
Meanwhile, President Lee Myung Bak was criticized at home for his "slow" response to the crisis with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae Yung being grilled by parliamentarians over intelligence glitches regarding information about the attack and his inadequate response to North Korea’s artillery firing.
Kim said that North Korea’s attempts to demonstrate its might were just a means for the upcoming leader Kim Jong-un to show off his status as a strong leader.
Author: Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas