BEIJING China's muted reaction to North Korea's rocket launch is in sharp contrast to other nations, with Beijing concerned about pushing Pyongyang into a corner which could jeopardize broader nuclear disarmament talks, analysts said.
China is also concerned about the stability of North Korea given the risk of refugees flooding across its border if the impoverished state were to collapse, and analysts say Beijing is unlikely to back strong action against its communist neighbor.
The Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Yesui urged fellow Security Council members to act in a "constructive and responsible manner" to a launch which Beijing officially says was of a communications satellite, echoing the North's stance.
China's mild stance contrasts with October 2006, when it denounced as "brazen" North Korea's first and only test explosion of a nuclear device -- an act that defied public warnings from Beijing's image-sensitive leaders.
Beijing's current position is not likely to shift anytime soon, analysts say.
"Over the past few years the situation on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia has been very tense. China wants peace and stability here, not contradictions," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
"The denuclearization of North Korea is most important," he added. "Further spats are not conducive to pushing the six party talks forward, nor to regional stability."
China has for the past few years hosted on-off talks between the two Koreas, Japan, the United States and Russia to get the North to give up its nuclear program.
Piao Jianyi, a North Korea expert at the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in a commentary in the official Xinhua news agency that the six-party talks were still the "best path" to dealing with North Korea.
"Thus, after a period of heated exchanges, the North Korean missile issue will probably be included in the framework of the six party talks, along with the nuclear issue and the normalizing of U.S.-North Korea and Japan-North Korea ties, to solve it all together," he wrote.
While those talks have stalled of late, China is unwilling to abandon them in the face of calls from some other partners in the process to condemn North Korea at the United Nations, or to support further sanctions.
The United States, Japan and South Korea said the rocket launch violated Security Council resolutions banning the firing of ballistic missiles by Pyongyang, imposed after the nuclear test and other missile exercises in 2006.
China "upholds using talks to solve the problem, and does not condone any action which may exacerbate or complicate the situation further," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his counterparts in the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
China is the closest North Korea has to a major ally and economic partner.
Yet China is wary of pushing too hard given the nightmare scenario of refugees flooding across its border in the event North Korea implodes following a military strike or other destabilizing event.
"Any rapid influx of refugees would upset delicate balances, undermining social and economic stability and threatening the current state of law and order in the region," the Washington-based Nixon Centre wrote in a report earlier this month.
"China's assertion that it seeks stability in the Northeast region and peaceful conditions within North Korea and in its surrounding international environment should be considered genuine."
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)