BEIJING: China on Thursday resisted US-led pressure to bring its ally North Korea to heel for launching a long-range rocket, arguing that any response from the United Nations should be "prudent" and measured.
The United States demanded further action from China -- Pyongyang's foremost patron -- and US allies pressed for stronger sanctions, after the UN Security Council condemned North Korea for carrying out Wednesday's banned launch.
But foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that China believes any UN response "should be prudent, appropriate and conducive to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and avoid the escalation of the situation".
North Korea says it placed a satellite in orbit for peaceful research, but critics say the launch amounted to a banned ballistic missile test that marked a major advance for the communist state's nuclear weapons programme.
Hong reaffirmed that China "regrets" the rocket launch, avoiding much stronger language of condemnation used by the United States, South Korea and Japan among others.
In South Korea, foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said that North Korea "must pay the price" for its actions as he called for a new round of sanctions.
China is considered to have the most influence over North Korea and US officials are scrutinising its policy for any hints of change as Communist Party chief Xi Jinping gradually takes the reins of power.
But Chinese state media downplayed the need for stepped-up sanctions and said that in any case, China has limited influence over Pyongyang.
"The real problem is China's strength is not sufficient to influence its neighbour's situation," the Global Times daily said in an editorial titled "NK move shows China's lack of leverage".
A bellicose Western reaction risked driving North Korea into a corner with potentially devastating results, state editorials said.
"That is why China should not take a cooperative stance with the US, Japan and South Korea in imposing sanctions on North Korea," the Global Times said.
South Korea's defence ministry said that the satellite launched by the rocket was in operational orbit, but the main concern in the West is that North Korea may be perfecting technology to fire missiles as far as the US Pacific coast.
Analysts say the symbolism of the launch was also a prime motivating factor for North Korea as the youthful Kim Jong-Un shores up his leadership a year on from the death of his father Kim Jong-Il on December 17 last year.
China did join other members of the Security Council in condemning the launch as a "clear violation" of UN resolutions.
But diplomats at the council meeting told AFP that China's UN ambassador resisted having tougher language in the statement, and did not allow inclusion of the phrase that North Korea had used "ballistic missile technology".
Masao Okonogi, honorary professor at Keio University, told AFP that China was employing its usual tactic of gentle persuasion with the aim of getting North Korea to open up.
"I think it wants to shift the North toward the opening up of its economy without driving it to the wall. By doing so, it is considering prompting North Korea to transform its structure gradually."
Outrage over Wednesday's launch was mixed with concern that North Korea may follow past practice in following up a missile or rocket launch with a nuclear test.
The North's first nuclear test in 2006 came three months after it tested a long-range missile. On that occasion, Pyongyang announced the test six days before it exploded the device.
The second test, in May 2009, came a month after a rocket launch that North Korea claimed had put a satellite in space. Pyongyang had threatened the second test unless the UN Security Council apologised for its condemnation of the launch.
That precedent has reportedly been cited in the past by China as a reason for resisting tougher sanctions on North Korea, arguing that Pyongyang tends to kick back hardest when it feels cornered.
But the North said it would ignore international warnings. "We will continue to exercise our legitimate right to launch satellites," a Pyongyang foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.
A previous launch of North Korea's Unha-3 rocket in April ended in embarrassing failure, with the carrier exploding shortly after take-off, and the Kim regime was believed keen to mark this month's anniversary with an emphatic success.