Reporting from Beijing, Seoul and Washington — The Obama administration on Wednesday urged China to use its influence with largely isolated North Korea to help control tensions in the region after an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans and wounded at least 18 on a Yellow Sea island.
But China refused to blame North Korea for the Tuesday attack, signaling that Beijing may rebuff calls from the U.S. and other nations to punish Pyongyang. Unlike other governments, China, a longtime patron of North Korea, has not displayed outrage over the attack.
Tensions remained high Wednesday as Seoul promised massive retaliation should North Korea attack again, and Pyongyang threatened a second bombardment if South Korea encroached on its maritime border by "even 0.001 millimeter."
North Korean officials pointed to South Korean military exercises that were underway around the island, which is near a disputed maritime border between the Koreas. North Korean officials said South Korean forces fired artillery toward North Korean waters, bringing the peninsula to the "brink of war."
The Pentagon said U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington was cruising toward the west coast of South Korea to join in the exercises. The mission was a demonstration of a U.S. commitment to an ally, but also an implicit message to China to step up pressure to restrain North Korea or expect greater U.S. military presence in the area.
"China is pivotal to moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction," said Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman.
The calls for action reflect the Obama administration's growing recognition that China may be the best hope to curb North Korea when other diplomatic options are limited and military action could ignite an escalation that sets the peninsula aflame. Yet American administrations often have been frustrated in calls for Chinese help with North Korea, and there were signs that Beijing might again resist.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday encouraged the two Koreas to work out their differences.
"China strongly urges both North and South Korea exercise calm and restraint, and as quickly as possible engage in dialogue and contacts," Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a statement posted on the Web.
On state television and in editorial pages, several Chinese commentators appeared to endorse the North Korean viewpoint that Pyongyang's bombardment had been prompted by South Korean military exercises that sent fire toward North Korea.
"What actually happened was not as initially reported.... The military exercise was the fuse of the crossfire," Song Xiaojun, a military commentator, said on state-run CCTV.
China is reluctant to press North Korea because it wants the impoverished state to remain a buffer between it and South Korea, and fears a collapse could result in a unified Korea with a strong U.S. military presence on China's doorstep. Chinese officials and scholars also contend that China's influence is actually quite limited because of its reluctance to do anything that could destabilize the regime.
Yet Beijing may still try to prevent the conflict from escalating, analysts said.
"China wants the environment to be peaceful and stable," said Ni Lexiong, a professor at the Shanghai Institute of Science and Law. "We don't want a conflict and neither does the United States. Like parents of fighting children, we will drag them apart to keep things under control. Who fired first is meaningless."
China, North Korea's savior during the 1950-1953 Korean War, supplies Pyongyang with much of its food and fuel. Communist Party ties run strong between their leaderships.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, a pariah almost everywhere else in the world, made two trips to China this year, meeting with President Hu Jintao in May and August. In October, Chinese Politburo member Zhou Yongkang had a front-row seat presiding over a military parade to introduce Kim's son Kim Jong Eun to the public, in effect giving China's unofficial blessing to plans for the young man's succession.
Analysts said there are several possible diplomatic avenues of approach for the United States, but none is possible without China.
"You can go the U.N. Security Council or call for a five-party meeting [without North Korea]. But first you've got to go after China," said Victor Cha, former National Security Council director for Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
"You want them to issue a statement that they strongly condemn the attack. This time, there can't be any excuses, no saying that they have to look at the facts. The U.S. needs both Russia and China to get involved in this."
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak spoke with Obama and with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. In a 30-minute conversation, Obama said the U.S. would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Seoul throughout the crisis.