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Seong-Ho Sheen, an assistant professor of international relations at Seoul National University, said at the CSIS panel that the Chinese response to the Cheonan incident had shown that China wants to maintain stability no matter what the cost. “They still see North Korea as a strategic asset rather than as a strategic liability,” he said.

South Korea has sought a U.N. censure of North Korea over the sinking of its ship, but its vice foreign minister, Chun Yung-Woo, told Yonhap news agency this week that his country was not seeking sanctions.

Mr. Schriver predicts the international community will have trouble bringing China around to take stronger action against North Korea or endorse the findings of the international report, which “they still openly question.”

Mr. Tkacik agreed it would be impossible to isolate China at the U.N. Security Council as China has “ingratiated itself to most of the members of the council who look for Chinese investment.”

Speaking at CSIS, Mr. Cha said Russia’s role in the coming days and weeks will be crucial. “Where they come out on this investigation will say very much whether China will be isolated on the [Security Council] in terms of a resolution,” he said.

At the same discussion, John Park, director of the Korea working group at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the best thing China could do at the Security Council is to abstain. He predicted the Security Council would cobble together a nonbinding resolution that would call on all parties to commit to the armistice between North and South Korea, pursue efforts to boost maritime security and seek recognition of the disputed zone between the two neighbors.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tkacik said the U.S. had been wholly unsuccessful in its effort to get China on its side.

“Nothing the U.S. wants China to do has ever gotten done. When you inventory the list of American foreign policy priorities around the globe… you find that China is invariably on the other side of the issue from us,” he said. “To say that the United States has been successful in bringing China into the world community as a responsible stakeholder is an exercise in self-delusion.”