SEOGWIPO, South Korea -- China's premier said Sunday that avoiding conflict between the Koreas over the sinking of a warship is most urgent, but did not express support for a bid by South Korea and Japan to condemn North Korea at the United Nations for allegedly carrying out the attack.
China has been facing intense pressure from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to join efforts to punish North Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship that investigators say was ripped apart by a North Korean torpedo two months ago. Forty-six sailors died in the incident -- the South's worst military loss since the Korean War.
Wrapping up a two-day summit with South Korea and Japan on the Korean resort island of Jeju, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao showed no clear public signs today that Beijing was ready to rebuke North Korea.
"The urgent task for the moment is to properly handle the serious impact caused by the Cheonan incident, gradually defuse tensions over it, and avoid possible conflicts," Wen said.
"China will continue to work with every country through aggressive negotiations and cooperation to fulfill our mission of maintaining peace and stability in the region," he said.
China, North Korea's main ally, wields veto power at the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member, so its support would be key to any bid to condemn or sanction the North there.
Last week, senior U.S. officials said after holding talks in Beijing that China is likely to gradually endorse the view that North Korea should be held accountable. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
After Sunday's meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said the three nations have "a common view that it (the ship sinking) is a serious matter for peace and stability in Northeast Asia."
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said the three countries agreed to continue discussing the ship sinking.
"I expect Japan and China, as very responsible members of the international community, to wisely cooperate in handling of this matter," Lee said.
North Korea has repeatedly denied responsibility, and the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Saturday the ship investigation was "a hideous charade" carried out by Seoul and its allies America, Australia and Britain.
South Korea on Monday laid out a series of punitive measures and pledged to take North Korea before the U.N. Security Council. The steps include slashing trade, resuming anti-North Korean propaganda broadcasts across the border and launching large-scale naval exercises off the western coast.
The North has said the South's moves are pushing the peninsula closer to war.
Before the trilateral summit began Saturday, Wen offered condolences to the families of the dead sailors at a meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan, the prime minister's office said.
In a meeting with Wen on Friday, Lee laid out the investigation's findings and urged the Chinese premier to play an "active role" in convincing North Korea to admit its wrongdoing, the presidential Blue House said. Wen told Lee that his country "will defend no one" responsible for the sinking, Lee's office said.
Chinese leaders were pressed hard on the issue during talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other officials in Beijing earlier this week, and Seoul has already expressed its displeasure over Beijing's hosting of reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on a visit just weeks after the sinking.
North Korea has carried out a series of attacks in the South since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953. South Korea has never retaliated militarily. China fought alongside North Korea in the war, while the U.S. aided the South.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Sangwon Yoon in Seoul contributed to this report.