Washington: Chinese President Hu Jintao warned US President Barack Obama on Monday that Korean tensions risk spiraling out of control as the US, Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers met to discuss how to deal with North Korea`s shelling of the South 2 weeks ago.
Analysts said Hu`s comments showed greater urgency over the mounting tension and an attempt to avoid the perception Beijing is siding with its ally Pyongyang against the United States, Japan and South Korea.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was meeting her counterparts from Seoul and Tokyo in a series of meetings in Washington on Monday to discuss the North Korea situation.
The White House said Obama, in a telephone call with Hu, urged Beijing to work with the United States and others to "send a clear message to North Korea that its provocations are unacceptable.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military officer, will leave for Seoul on Monday evening for meetings with South Korean security and military officials.
"The principal message is to the South Koreans that we continue to stand by them in the defense of their territory and for the stability of the peninsula," said Captain John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I don`t think anyone thinks we`re in an emergency situation right now ... That said, it`s still tense."
The International Criminal Court`s prosecutor said it had opened a preliminary investigation into whether North Korean forces committed war crimes in South Korea, ramping up pressure on the isolated government in Pyongyang.
China, the host of stalled international nuclear talks with Pyongyang, was not invited to the US-Japan-South Korea talks in Washington. But the three are expected to discuss Beijing`s proposal for emergency regional talks on the crisis.
"The phone call itself could be an attempt to avoid the perception prior to the meeting between South Korea, the US and Japan that it is those three countries on one side facing off against China and Russia on North Korea," said Sun Zhe, director of the Center for U.S-China Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The conversation between Obama and Hu took place as South Korea started live-fire naval exercises, 13 days after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island close to a disputed maritime demarcation line.
"Especially with the present situation, if not dealt with properly, tensions could well rise on the Korean peninsula or spin out of control, which would not be in anyone`s interest," Hu said, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.
"The most pressing task at present is to calmly deal with the situation."
China faces calls from the United States and its allies to do more to curb impoverished North Korea after the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed two South Korean civilians and two soldiers.
While Beijing has not apportioned blame for the incident, Hu said China expressed "deep regret" about the deaths.
"We need an easing, not a ratcheting up; dialogue, not confrontation; peace, not war," Hu was quoted as telling Obama.
Hu`s comments could also illustrate why China has been hesitant to put pressure on the North, possibly fearing an implosion of its isolated ally as it goes through a leadership transition.
A draft of the statement to be issued by the US, Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers -- reported by Japanese broadcaster NHK -- said the three nations expect China to press North Korea to fulfill "responsibilities that had been set in the six-party talks" on abandoning its nuclear weapons program.
The statement would also condemn the attack, NHK said.
Tensions on the peninsula have risen to their highest level in decades after the Yeonpyeong attack, which came days after the North revealed it had made significant advances in its nuclear program.
"China is gravely worried about the situation on the peninsula because if large-scale conflict were to erupt on its border, China would face enormous political and strategic problems," said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University.
Analysts say Pyongyang`s latest provocations could be driven by factors including internal politics and its repeated use of threats and violence for leverage to win aid at talks.
Two years ago, North Korea walked out of aid-for-disarmament talks that had brought together the two Koreas, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
Pyongyang has said it now wants to restart them and has won the backing of Beijing and Moscow. But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo say they will return only when the North shows it is sincere about curbing its nuclear ambitions.
South Korea began the live-fire naval drills in disputed waters off the west coast, ignoring Pyongyang`s warnings that they showed Seoul was "hell-bent" on starting war.
The South`s military said exercises were due to take place in the vicinity of the tense Northern Limit Line (NLL) but not near Yeonpyeong island as part of drills at 29 locations around the peninsula.
The North justified last month`s attack -- the first of its kind on a civilian area on South Korean soil since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War -- saying the South had fired artillery rounds into its waters.
The South said it had been conducting regular drills in the area but that they were harmless and on its side of the NLL.