China has proposed that North Korea suspend its tests of missile and nuclear technology to “defuse a looming crisis”.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that in exchange, the US and South Korea could halt annual joint military drills, which consistently infuriate the North.
The appeal comes after North Korea test-launched four missiles on Monday, breaking international sanctions.
In response, the US began rolling out a missile defence system in South Korea.
Speaking on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary meeting, Mr Wang said the Korean peninsula was like “two accelerating trains, coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way”.
“Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” he asked.
A mutual halt of military operations would be the first step towards easing tensions and reopening negotiations, he said.
Three of the North Korean missiles came down inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on Monday, prompting Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump to say the region had entered “a new stage of threat”.
The UN Security Council earlier strongly condemned the launch in a unanimous statement, calling it a grave violation of North Korea’s international obligations, which risked destabilising the region.
The Council, which will meet later on Wednesday, also threatened to “take further significant measures” against North Korea, which could imply efforts to introduce a fresh round of sanctions.
Meanwhile, the US has again sought to reassure Beijing over deployment of an extensive missile defence system in South Korea.
The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system (Thaad) is designed to protect South Korea, and US troops based there, from North Korean missile attacks. The first elements of it were moved into place on Tuesday, hours after the North’s latest launch.
The Thaad deployment, originally agreed under the Obama administration, is controversial.
South Koreans living in areas which will host defence batteries are concerned they could become targets.
China has said its radar capabilities go far beyond what is required for defence and represents an encroachment of US military power and that it will “resolutely take necessary measures to defend our own security interest”.
At a news briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated US reassurances to China.
He said the US had been “very clear in our conversations with China that this is not meant to be a threat, and is not a threat, to them or any other power in the region”.
The US was “actively engaged” with its regional partners, he said, to address North Korea’s “continuing provocative behaviour and actions”.
Mr Toner said that North Korea would be discussed next week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his first official visits to South Korea, Japan and China.