China has resisted pressure to bring North Korea to heel after its rogue ally launched a long-range rocket, with Beijing arguing that any response from the United Nations should be "prudent". The United States demanded further action from China, Pyongyang's foremost patron, and US allies pressed for stronger sanctions, after the UN Security Council condemned North Korea for carrying out Wednesday's banned launch. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China believes any UN response "should be prudent, appropriate and conducive to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and avoid the escalation of the situation". North Korea says it placed a satellite in orbit for peaceful research, but critics say the launch amounted to a banned ballistic missile test that marked a major advance for its nuclear weapons programme. Hong reaffirmed that China "regrets" the rocket launch, avoiding the much stronger language of condemnation used by the United States, South Korea and Japan, among others. In South Korea, a foreign ministry spokesman said that North Korea "must pay the price" for its actions, as he called for a new round of sanctions. China is considered to have the most influence over North Korea and US officials are scrutinising its policy for any hints of change as Xi Jinping gradually takes the reins of power. But China's state media downplayed the need for stepped-up sanctions and said that in any case, China has limited influence over Pyongyang. "The real problem is China's strength is not sufficient to influence its neighbour's situation," the Global Times daily said in an editorial titled "NK move shows China's lack of leverage". A bellicose Western reaction risks driving North Korea into a corner with potentially devastating results, state editorials said. "That is why China should not take a co-operative stance with the US, Japan and South Korea in imposing sanctions on North Korea," the Global Times said. South Korea's defence ministry said that the satellite launched by the rocket was in operational orbit, but the main concern in the West is that North Korea may be perfecting technology to fire missiles as far as the US Pacific coast. Analysts say the symbolism of the launch was also a prime motivating factor for North Korea as the youthful Kim Jong-un shores up his inexperienced leadership a year on from the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. China did join other members of the Security Council in condemning the launch as a "clear violation" of UN resolutions. But diplomats at the council meeting said that China's UN ambassador resisted inserting some harder-hitting language in the statement, and did not allow inclusion of the phrase that North Korea had used "ballistic missile technology". Outrage over Wednesday's launch is mixed with concern that North Korea may follow up with a nuclear test. South Korea's navy has launched a salvage operation in the Yellow Sea to retrieve debris from the rocket. The first stage of the North's Unha-3 rocket fell in the sea off the Korean peninsula, while the second splashed down east of the Philippines. A chunk of the debris was found on the sea bed, some 160 kilometres west of the southwestern port of Gunsan.