China warned Wednesday that North Korea and the United States were like two trains racing towards a "head-on collision," calling on both sides to apply the brakes and avert a security crisis.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi's warning came after a cascade of events that has sent regional tensions soaring, including provocative North Korean missile tests and annual US-South Korean wargames that infuriate Pyongyang.
Beijing itself is particularly concerned over an American missile-defence system being rolled out in South Korea as a shield against the North Korean threat, but which Wang said also "undermines China's strategic security."
He called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the US and South Korea halting the military exercises.
"The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way," Wang said at a press conference on the sidelines of China's annual parliament session.
"The question is: are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains."
Pyongyang blasted at least four missiles toward Japan on Monday, three of which splashed down in waters within Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone, saying they were tests for a possible strike on US bases in Japan.
Wang said China's proposal could help bring the US and North Korea back to negotiations on ending Pyongyang's weapons programmes.
- 'Destabilising behaviour' -
But it mirrors past North Korean offers that were rejected by the US, which said Pyongyang had no right to demand concessions in return for abiding by UN resolutions.
Six sets of UN sanctions since Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons. It held its most recent nuclear test last September.
Wang continued China's hammering of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defence system, repeating Beijing's "strong opposition" and calling on Seoul to "cease and desist."
THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy short and medium-range ballistic missiles.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday strongly condemned the launches as a "grave violation" of its resolutions barring North Korea from developing missile technology, and denounced Pyongyang's "increasingly destabilising behaviour."
It vowed further measures. An emergency council meeting has been called for Wednesday.
North Korea slammed the Security Council statement as a "brigandish act like a thief crying 'stop thief!'", according to its official news agency.
Citing a foreign ministry spokesman, it said the Security Council had "wantonly violated a sovereign state's right to self-defence."
Since the launches, US President Donald Trump has reiterated Washington's "iron-clad commitment" to Japanese and South Korean security and threatened "very dire consequences" for Pyongyang.
The US State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Japan, South Korea and China starting next week, his first trip to the region, with talks to focus on the North Korean "threat".
- Malaysia won't sever ties -
The South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group has come under growing pressure in China for providing a site for the THAAD system, triggering concerns of a broader backlash in China against Seoul.
Chinese authorities have shut down 39 of the 99 Lotte Mart retail outlets in the country over supposed fire-safety concerns, a Lotte spokesman has said, and Chinese travel agencies have told AFP they were ordered to stop arranging Chinese tourist trips to South Korea.
North Korea is also squaring off against Malaysia over the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of Pyongyang's leader Kim Jong-Un and considered by some analysts as a potential rival.
South Korea says the February 13 killing at Kuala Lumpur's airport using a banned chemical weapon was orchestrated by the North.
Pyongyang has accused Malaysia of smearing its reputation with the murder investigation.
On Tuesday it barred Malaysians from leaving its borders, prompting a tit-for-tat measure by Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday ruled out severing ties with North Korea, saying they were need to negotiate a way out of the rapidly escalating diplomatic row.
Malaysia says 11 of its citizens were currently in North Korea.
"At the moment (diplomatic ties are) still on because it provides us with a channel," Najib told reporters. "We have to maintain ties because we have means to negotiate."