Chinese President Hu Jintao has warned that growing military tensions on the Korean peninsula could spiral out of control while U.S. leader Barack Obama asked Beijing to rein in North Korea, in their first direct talks since its recent attack on South Korea.
In their telephone conversation late Sunday, Hu said China was following the crisis triggered by Pyongyang’s Nov. 23 artillery attack on a South Korean island with great concern.
"China expresses deep regret about [the exchange of artillery fire], and is extremely worried about the current situation," Hu was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
"The Korean peninsula has a very fragile security situation," he said. "If not dealt with properly, tensions could well rise on the Korean peninsula or spin out of control," he said.
He said immediate action was necessary to prevent a worsening of tensions between China's neighbors, North and South Korea.
The South Korean military began a major live-fire exercise on Monday following North Korea's deadly bombardment of Yeonpyeong island two weeks ago that triggered days of U.S.-South Korean war games in the Yellow Sea.
North Korea’s artillery attack killed two South Korean civilians and two marines, destroyed 29 homes, and sent regional tensions soaring.
Obama urged Hu to send "a clear message" to North Korea that its shelling of South Korean territory and other provocations were unacceptable.
The White House said Obama had emphasized the need for North Korea to halt its provocative behavior and to meet its international obligations.
Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry statement quoted Hu as saying: "Under the current situation, it is imperative that the response is cool and rational and that we firmly prevent a deterioration of the situation."
The telephone call came as foreign ministers of the United States, South Korea, and Japan held talks in Washington Monday aimed at resolving the standoff between the two Koreas.
In addition, South Korea launched Monday live-fire exercises involving warships or land artillery units in 29 locations, including off one of five frontline islands near the disputed Yellow Sea border with the North. Pyongyang has warned that such exercises could spark a war.
Obama's phone call to Hu came amid reports that Washington was distancing itself from Beijing and privately accusing China of enabling North Korean nuclear ambitions and regional aggression.
The presidents agreed that their common interest was in peace and stability in Northeast Asia, and the priority of ensuring the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the White House statement said.
"They agreed on the importance of the United States and China working together toward these shared goals," it said.
The United States, South Korea, and Japan all refused China's invitation for them and Russia to hold emergency six-party talks in Beijing after the North Korean artillery attack.
Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo oppose a return to the six-party negotiating table until Pyongyang demonstrates that it is serious about disarmament.
According to China's official news agency Xinhua, Hu responded that Beijing is still willing to cooperate with the five other nations closely concerned with security on the Korean peninsula.
"China is willing to keep in close contact and coordinate with the United States on the situation on the Korean peninsula," the agency quoted Hu as saying.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan that they shared grave concerns over "provocative attacks from North Korea."
Clinton and her counterparts pledged not to engage in dialogue with North Korea unless Pyongyang puts a stop to provocations and demonstrates a commitment towards denuclearization.
They also urged China to "play a vital role in regional diplomacy."
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.