China has criticised a Japan-US military exercise and said its efforts to resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula were being condemned unfairly.
A Chinese leader also told a visiting North Korean delegation that ties between the two countries would survive current “tempests” and be “replenished”.
The week-long exercise that starts on Friday was planned long before the latest tensions but its scale – 40,000 personnel involved in the simulated defence of an island – reflects concern about China’s rapid emergence as a military power.
Pressed to rein in North Korea after it shelled a South Korean island, China called at the weekend for emergency talks among the six countries involved in nuclear negotiations, North and South Korea, China, the US, Russia and Japan.
The proposal was given short shrift by most of the other countries, some of which felt it would reward Pyongyang for its actions.
This week the US held a naval drill with South Korea in a show of force intended for North Korea, and the exercise with Japan will include South Korean military observers.
Beijing reacted angrily to the latest US-led drill. The foreign ministry said: “Brandishing force cannot solve the issue. Some are playing with knives and guns, while China is criticised for calling for dialogue. Is that fair? The talks we propose are not a formal meeting so this dialogue should not be difficult.”
Meanwhile, Wu Bangguo, head of the Chinese legislature and number two in the hierarchy of the Communist party, told North Korean officials that Beijing continued to support a close relationship with Pyongyang.
In a front-page article in the People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, he was quoted as saying: “The friendship of China and North Korea has withstood the tests of international tempests and changes and replenished over time.”
Mr Wu’s comments come days after leaked US diplomatic cables quoted Chinese diplomats calling Pyongyang a “spoilt child” and questioning the long-term future of China’s alliance with North Korea.
Analysts say party and military elements are generally favourable to close ties with Pyongyang, and the leadership appears to have decided to maintain the status quo for fear of the consequences of an implosion.
Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, has visited China twice this year and China has also given public support to the succession plan in Pyongyang eventually to hand power to Kim Jong-eun, his third son.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stepped up pressure on China to take a tougher line with North Korea, saying: “Beijing’s call for consultations will not substitute for action and I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea’s provocative ... behaviour with bargaining or new incentives. China is uniquely placed to guide North Korea to a less dangerous place.”