|South Korea has ordered more troops to be deployed at Yeonpyeong island following Tuesday's shelling [GALLO/GETTY]
China's prime minister has called on all sides to observe "maximum restraint" over renewed tensions on the Korean peninsula two days after deadly shelling near a disputed maritime border killed four people.
The call comes as South Korea's defence minister announced his resignation on the heels of severe public criticism for the military’s response to North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong island on Tuesday.
Wen Jiabao, in the first highest-level Chinese response to North Korea's attack, said that China opposes military provocations in any form.
"China has all along devoted itself to maintaining the peninsula's peace and stability, and opposed military provocations in any forms," he said during a visit to Russia on Wednesday.
"All concerned parties should exert maximum restraint, and the international community should make more efforts conducive to easing up the tensions," Wen said in remarks posted on the Chinese foreign ministry's website.
China has been careful not to mention North Korea by name or assign blame for Tuesday's attack, in keeping with its status as North Korea's most important ally.
Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, accepted the resignation of Kim Tae-Young, the country's defence minister, a presidential statement said.
|The South Korean defence minister was held responsible for the response to the North Korean attack [AFP]
The statement said Kim, who faced strong criticism from legislators over the military's perceived "soft" reaction to the attack, wished to step down "to take responsibility for a recent series of incidents".
South Korean legislators said the military should have responded more ruthlessly, such as by staging an air strike on the North's artillery batteries, but Kim said air power could have sparked a "full-blown war".
A planned visit to Seoul by China's foreign minister later this week was postponed.
Tuesday's bombardment on Yeonpyeong island killed two civilians and two marines, and shattered many homes and set buildings ablaze.
South Korean officials said it was the first shelling of civilian areas in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
South Korea said it would increase troops near the disputed sea border off its west coast following the attacks.
The military in Seoul said it will revise its rules of engagement to respond more strongly to North Korean attacks in the future.
The presidential office said after an emergency security meeting chaired by Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, that ground forces will be "drastically" reinforced in the disputed maritime border area.
The office said in a statement it will prioritise spending to deal with the North's "asymmetrical threats" and that a 2006 plan to downsize the marine corps would be scrapped.
Al Jazeera’s Marga Ortigas, reporting from Seoul, said that the government announced that "the rules of engagement will be altered for the future".
"There will be distinctions now between how it responds to acts of aggression between military targets, and those that are aimed at civilians," she said.
Wen's comments also came as the United States urged China to act to rein in North Korea, implying that Beijing should leverage its role as Pyongyang's chief source of economic assistance and diplomatic support.
"If sending a US aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea for military exercises becomes a regular occurrence, the strategic environment of the Yellow Sea will be altered, and Northeast Asia will be rocked by forces even greater than North-South Korean artillery barrages"
Global Times, Chinese Communist Party tabloid
Wen called for a resumption of six-nation talks to end North Korea's nuclear programmes that stalled two years ago, saying they were "an essential way to secure stability and denuclearisation on the peninsula".
China has proven unwilling to use that influence in past crises, fearing it could fuel instability and lead to the collapse of the North Korean government.
Repeating an earlier statement, Hong Lei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said China "feels pain and regret about an incident causing deaths and property losses and is worried about the developments".
"We have noted the relevant reports and express our concern about this," Hong Lei said, referring to the joint South Korea-US military exercises next week and the involvement of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington in the drill.
The Global Times, a popular tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily, said now was not the time for war games.
"If sending a US aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea for military exercises becomes a regular occurrence, the strategic environment of the Yellow Sea will be altered, and Northeast Asia will be rocked by forces even greater than North-South Korean artillery barrages," the newspaper warned in an editorial.
Earlier North Korea's KCNA news agency said Pyongyang will launch more attacks if South Korea continues with "reckless provocations".
"[North Korea] will wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation, if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again," the agency said, quoting from a military statement.
"The US cannot evade the blame for the recent shelling," it added. "If the US truly desires detente on the Korean peninsula, it should not thoughtlessly shelter the South Korean puppet forces, but strictly control them so that they may not commit any more adventurous military provocations."
China has long propped up the Pyongyang leadership, worried that a collapse of the North could bring instability to its own borders.
Beijing is also wary of a unified Korea that would be dominated by the United States, the key ally of the South.
The deaths of civilians have added to anger in South Korea.
"If China does not put public pressure on North Korea, provocations by North Korea will continue," South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said.
"If the Korean peninsula is in flames, Chinese prosperity will shake from the bottom."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies