A voice of the Chinese Communist Party has offered a glimpse of the sides Beijing could take if fighting breaks out on the Korean peninsula.
Although China has long been a sworn supporter of its neighbour, if North Korea fires first on the United States, Beijing should not provide the regime any backing in whatever fighting ensues, daily Chinese newspaper Global Times wrote in an editorial Friday.
However, if "the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so," the newspaper said.
The rhetoric around possible strikes became even more heated on Friday, when U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"
The options weighed in the Global Times editorial are not a formal statement of Chinese policy. But the newspaper is frequently used to communicate to the outside world what some in the Chinese government are thinking.
A rising superpower with an increasingly potent military capability, China occupies a pivotal role on the border of North Korea. The trade of Chinese goods underpins its neighbour's economic survival, while decades of Beijing political support have provided Pyongyang with vital cover in international affairs.
But the newspaper enunciates a basis for China to ignore its obligations under a mutual defence treaty, signed in 1961, that pledges it to "immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal" if North Korea comes under armed attack.
That treaty also swears both countries to "make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia and the world." Academics in China have, in recent years, argued that North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has already placed it in violation, voiding China's obligation to come to its defence.
A missile attack on waters near Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory, would do the same, the editorial said.
"If North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral," it said.
The newspaper's position is "more or less consistent with official policy – just more strongly worded," said Michael Kovrig, senior Northeast Asia adviser at International Crisis Group.
"In this case, the point is to tell both Pyongyang and Washington to dial down their provocative rhetoric and de-escalate the situation."
China's Foreign Ministry did not directly answer questions about the editorial, which was published as the United States and South Korea agreed not to take any action against North Korea without first discussing it.
In a phone call on Friday, Chung Eui-yong, the head of South Korea's Presidential National Security Office, and U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster "reaffirmed their promise to closely and transparently co-operate on the steps to be taken," said Park Soo-hyun, a spokesman for Seoul's presidential office.
Distrust of the United States has, however, prompted new calls in South Korea for the country to consider acquiring its own nuclear weapons. "Now is time to start reviewing nuclear armament," the Korea Herald wrote on Friday.
China, meanwhile, has for months sought to find a middle ground, arguing that peace can be achieved through a "double suspension" that would involve the U.S. abandoning military exercises with South Korea and North Korea freezing its missile and nuclear-testing program.
The idea has won little support in the United States, and North Korea observers question whether Pyongyang would be willing to suspend a program that is closing in on the ability to place into service a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. The U.S. has also accused China of doing too little to rein in North Korea. China has expressed frustration that "Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time."
North Korea has detailed plans it is developing to unleash an "enveloping fire" of four missiles that would land 30 to 40 kilometres off the shore of Guam. Mr. Trump has promised "fire and fury" if North Korea continues to pursue nuclear weapons, and said "things will happen to them like they never thought possible" if the regime attacks "anybody that we love."
"The real danger is that such a reckless game may lead to miscalculations and a strategic 'war,'" the Global Times editorial said. "That is to say, neither Washington nor Pyongyang really wants war, but a war could break out anyway as they do not have the experience of putting such an extreme game under control."
China has grown increasingly frustrated with North Korea's provocations, joining the international community in imposing stricter new economic sanctions on the impoverished country. But it has been difficult to discern Beijing's willingness to bring its actions into line with its rhetoric. North Korean trade has continued at a steady pace and its economy has continued to grow.
Still, the North Korean regime's sneering defiance against the international community has severely eroded a bond of friendship forged during the Korean War, when Mao Zedong dispatched his military to save what is now North Korea from almost certain defeat at the hands of the United States and South Korea.
China is unlikely to guarantee the salvation of North Korea again, Chinese scholars said. Its concern is its own well-being.
"What's certain is that China will not repeat what happened with the Korean War in the past," said Cheng Xiaohe, a scholar of China's relations with its neighbours at Renmin University in Beijing. "It's impossible to have a second war against the U.S. in the Korean peninsula."
China could dispatch troops, he said, but only to protect North Korean nuclear facilities, or to head off a humanitarian crisis.
"China is only able to safeguard our own interests," said Zhang Liangui, a professor of international strategic research at the Communist Party's Central Party School. He shook his head at Washington and Pyongyang's "refusal to listen to what China has suggested." If they want to fight, "how does China have the ability to prevent them?" he said.