The UN Security Council failed to reach a consensus on the crisis of the Korean Peninsula on Sunday. A day later, the Republic of Korea (ROK) began a live-firing drill near the border of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), ignoring the latter's warning of counterattack.
Tension has been palpable on the Korean Peninsula since the DPRK and the ROK exchanged fire on Nov 23. The two sides have engaged in skirmishes before but none reached such a level and caused even half as much worry. So what is different this time?
Besides the differences in the domestic situations in the DPRK and the ROK, the greatest cause of concern is the shift in United States' strategy to Asia Pacific.
A series of large-scale US-ROK and US-Japan military exercises in the waters around the Korean Peninsula has strengthened US military presence and aggravated tensions in Northeast Asia.
The joint military drills have had the opposite effect on the DPRK. It has become more adamant because it sees the shows as threats to its survival and security. In a tit for tat, it has announced combat-readiness.
The ROK troops held naval drills in 29 places close to the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea on Dec 6. They held another round of maneuvers at 27 places in the Yellow Sea's eastern, western and southern waters from Dec 13 to 17. Before Monday's drills the ROK's military said it will "immediately and sternly" deal with any provocation.
The US and the ROK are adjusting their joint military plans according to the developments on the Korean Peninsula, ignoring the DPRK's warning that the drills are heightening tensions on the peninsula.
The exchange of fire and rising tensions on the peninsula have increased the risk of a full-fledged war, which could break out if the situation is allowed to spiral out of control. In fact, a war could have broken out had China not launched an all-out campaign to defuse tensions on the peninsula.
Developments on the Korean Peninsula affect China in more ways than one. If a war breaks out on the peninsula, China's northeast region will come under direct threat, creating enormous pressure on the country, and damage its strategic environment. It will threaten China's peaceful development, especially the plan for the economic rejuvenation of its northeastern region. Mounting military pressure along the border will compel China to reinforce its strength in border areas to safeguard national security.
To ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, in fact the whole of Northeast Asia, China views the overall developments from a strategic perspective and has made all-out efforts to restore peace and stability in the region. It urges relevant parties to exercise calm and refrain from taking actions that could worsen the situation and appeals to them to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue through peaceful talks.
During his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow late last month, Premier Wen Jiabao called on all sides to exercise "maximum restraint" and said China is opposed to military provocation in any form.
State Councilor Dai Bingguo met with ROK President Lee Myung-bak on Nov 28 in Seoul and said that all relevant parties should make concerted efforts to create conditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.
In early December, the Chinese government proposed emergency consultations among the heads of delegation to the Six-Party Talks. The constructive proposal played an important role in easing tensions.
But instead of accepting Beijing's proposal, the meeting of the foreign ministers of the ROK and Japan and the US secretary of state in Washington on Dec 6 condemned the DPRK and asked China to join them in dealing with issues relating to the Korean Peninsula.
On Dec 6, President Hu Jintao reportedly told US President Barack Obama over the telephone: "We need to ease (tension), not heighten it dialogue, not confrontation peace, not war."
Thanks to China's efforts, the official DPRK newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in a commentary on Dec 7 that Pyongyang and Seoul should settle all mutual issues to improve their relations and achieve reunification through dialogue and negotiations. This was Pyongyang's "sign of peace" to the whole world.
But lately the DPRK had warned of a "catastrophe" if the ROK went ahead with the live-fire drills from Yeonpyeong.
In a way, Pyongyang's "super tough" stance against Seoul's "toughness" is to draw Washington's attention and increase its bargaining chips, and not to fight a war with the ROK.
The recent developments on the peninsula have made it all the more important to resume the Six-Party Talks. Military deterrence can only deteriorate the situation, even lead to a war. Dialogue and negotiations are the only way to solve the issues and restore peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The main responsibility of settling the Korean Peninsula issue, therefore, lies with the US rather than China. China, no doubt, is an important part of the process, and has scrupulously followed the principle of peaceful coexistence and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs.
In fact, even if China were to follow the examples of the US, the ROK and Japan and take a tough stance against the DPRK, it cannot compel Pyongyang to give in to the three countries' demands. On the contrary, such a shift in China's stance could harm regional peace and stability.
If China had not played a pacifying role, tensions on the peninsula could have escalated further.
After the armistice agreement ended the Korean War (1950-1953), no channel of direct dialogue exists between the two sides.
So an important task now is to transform the armistice agreement into a peace pact as soon as possible, a process in which the US has a vital role to play, for it is one of the parties that concluded the agreement. A peace pact between the DPRK and the ROK will play an important role in restoring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
The author is a professor of international studies at Jilin University.