China stood its ground that diplomacy was the best way to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, as U.S. diplomats arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for talks on Tehran and North Korea's atomic ambitions.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg will be the most senior U.S. diplomat to visit Beijing since a flurry of disputes over Internet censorship, trade, arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet unsettled ties with China.
Iran has also been a sticking point in Sino-U.S. ties. Washington and other Western powers want China's backing for a proposed U.N. resolution slapping new sanctions on Tehran, which they say is seeking the means to make nuclear weapons.
Of the five members of the U.N. Security Council with veto power, China is most resistant to employing global sanctions to force Tehran to abandon its alleged atom-bomb plans, saying diplomacy can resolve the issue.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang indicated on Tuesday his government would take its time on negotiating the Iran nuclear issue.
We believe there is still room for diplomatic efforts and the parties concerned should intensify those efforts, Qin told a regular news conference in Beijing.
Analysts and foreign officials say China will resist any proposed sanctions that threaten flows of oil and Chinese investments, but most believe it will accept a more narrowly cast resolution that has more symbolic than practical impact.
Iran was China's third biggest source of imported crude oil last year, and Beijing has long been reluctant to support stiff sanctions against Tehran.
Steinberg will also discuss North Korea, whose nuclear arms plans have alarmed the North's neighbors and the United States, said U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
Nations involved in six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program have been seeking to revive negotiations, stalled since last year after North Korea pulled out and held a nuclear test.
North Korea has previously put conditions on its return to the talks, including ending U.N. sanctions and having discussions with the United States on a peace treaty to replace the ceasefire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
Washington hopes the visit by Steinberg and the National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs, Jeffrey Bader, will help ease Sino-U.S. tensions.
We've gone through a bit of a bumpy path here, and I think there's an interest both within the United States and China to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible, Crowley told reporters in Washington.
China, too, appears to want to lower the temperature of friction with the United States, a key trade partner.
Beijing has not yet acted on its threat to sanction U.S. companies involved in the Taiwan arms sales, and on the weekend, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he wanted trade friction with the United States to ease.
A report in China's state-run Xinhua news agency on Monday suggested that Beijing would use the talks to press its complaints about U.S. policy toward Taiwan and Tibet.
In January, the Obama administration said it was going ahead with new arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled and democratic island that Beijing claims as its own. The following month President Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader reviled by Beijing.
Responsibility for the current state of China-U.S. relations does not lie with the Chinese side, and we ask that the U.S. take China's concerns seriously, said Qin, the Chinese spokesman.
After Beijing, Steinberg and Bader are due to meet with senior officials in Tokyo on Thursday and Friday.