China made its first official protest over plans by the U.S. and South Korea to hold joint military exercises involving the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea on Sunday.
But Beijing's protest, in a statement from the Foreign Ministry Friday, was noticeably more restrained than when the U.S. announced similar plans, involving the same aircraft carrier, in July.
The statement also appeared to offer all sides a face-saving compromise, by implying China did not oppose exercises outside its "exclusive economic zone," a term of international maritime law that generally extends 200 nautical miles from a country's coast.
The restrained language, and the apparent diplomatic get-out, could reflect China's concern that the North Korean crisis will overshadow a planned trip to Washington in January by President Hu Jintao.
"We hold a consistent and clear-cut stance on the issue," the statement quoted Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, as saying. "We oppose any party to take any military actions in our exclusive economic zone without permission."
"Restrained" language or otherwise, China is telegraphing that its primary concern in this matter is curtailing American influence in its backyard, not condemning the unprovoked and inexcusable violence perpetrated by a rogue regime against another country in the region. China is North Korea's primary aide and trade partner, and has so far refused to blame the North for the artillery raid. Pyongyang will likely view the Chinese Government's reaction as a tacit blessing of their actions, which could be both destabilizing and provocative, as their escalatory rhetoric suggests.