BEIJING, Sep 27 (Reuters) China publicly today called for restraint in Myanmar for the first time, as the Southeast Asian country's military rulers try to curb the biggest anti-government demonstrations in nearly 20 years.
The comments follow a meeting between a top US envoy, who called on China to use its influence as a neighbour and trade partner of the isolated regime, and Chinese officials.
''As a neighbour, China is extremely concerned about the situation in Myanmar,'' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news conference.
''We hope that all parties in the Myanmar issue will maintain restraint and appropriately handle the problems that have currently arisen so they do not become more complicated or expand, and don't affect Myanmar's stability and even less affect regional peace and stability.'' China, one of the military-ruled country's few allies, is seen as wielding considerable sway over the junta. China has been calling for stability, but today marked the first time it joined the chorus of voices from the West urging restraint.
Reports coming from Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, say security forces fired into crowds and have killed several Buddhist monks as they try to quell the clergy-led protests.
US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, in Beijing for talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme, met Chinese officials in Beijing earlier in the day.
''I think all countries need to use all the influence that they have. I think every country has some influence with Burma, and I think China is certainly one of those,'' he told reporters.
''I think we all need to agree on the fact that the Burmese government has to stop thinking that this can be solved by police and military and start thinking about the need for some genuine reconciliation with the broad spectrum of political activists in the country,'' Hill said.
NO TO SANCTIONS Some diplomats and analysts say Beijing may be quietly trying to exert its influence on the generals, but others argue it is unlikely to wield what power it has and risk its strategic goals of using the country to secure oil and gas supplies.
Jiang also said China supported a mediating role for UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who is waiting for the authorities in Myanmar to admit him.
But at the United Nations, China, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, ruled out calls for sanctions or a UN condemnation of the junta's use of force, saying the situation did not constitute a threat to international peace and security.
''I think it's very difficult to imagine that the Chinese government will agree to apply sanctions to their neighbour,'' said Jurgen Haacke, a specialist on the international politics of Southeast Asia at the London School of Economics.
''They look at Myanmar in terms of strategic significance ...
There are certain economic interests that the Chinese simply have and that are there to stay.'' China's priority is maintaining stability in the region ahead of next month's five-yearly Communist Party meeting, which will decide important leadership changes, and the Beijing Olympics next August.
In a country that sent in the military to quash its own pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, the government is also wary of any example the Myanmar protests could set at home, including in its restive southwestern Buddhist region of Tibet.
Chinese media has given only scant coverage to the unrest. There was no mention of the country on state television news and Thursday's newspapers carried a report by the official Xinhua news agency on the inside pages.
''Myanmar authorities have been using restraint in handling the demonstrating monks and have not used force to disperse the demonstrators,'' the report said.
REUTERS ARB PM1350