January 14, 2010 / 11:09 PM / 10 years ago

China to send lower-level envoy to talks on Iran

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China has decided to send a lower-level official to talks among major powers in New York on Saturday about possibly imposing new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programs, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday.

The development caused some consternation among others in the group, which includes Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany, and several diplomats said China had proposed New York as the venue for the meeting.

Diplomats said they did not know China’s motive, speculating it might be to illustrate Beijing’s resistance to punishing Iran with more sanctions or dismay at U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.

However, one diplomat said China often sends a lower-level official to such gatherings.

The other nations are expected to send their foreign ministry political directors to the meeting, which the United States and its Western allies hope will focus on discussing fresh sanctions to impose on Iran over its nuclear activities.

Washington accuses Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program. Iran says its nuclear program is designed to generate electricity so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.

“We are aware that their representation will be below the level of political director,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “It will be a useful meeting to have regardless of the Chinese representation.”

The United States will continue to work with China and other countries “to convince them that the urgency of the situation requires not only additional engagement, which China does support, but additional pressure, which obviously China is still working through,” he told reporters.

Asked if the United States felt snubbed by the Chinese decision, the spokesman paused for several seconds and then answered the question indirectly, saying “in diplomacy you don’t wear a chip on your shoulder.”

NO DECISION-MAKING POWERS?

Asked which Chinese official would attend the talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei, the political director-level official who would usually attend, would not be going.

“Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei will not be able to attend because of scheduling issues,” she said. “In the current circumstances, we hope that the relevant parties can continue seeking a diplomatic resolution, and demonstrate flexibility.”

Asked who would represent China, Jiang said: “Currently, the parties concerned are coordinating on arrangements for the meeting.”

Several diplomats in New York who spoke on condition they not be identified said that China would be represented by its mission to the United Nations, though it was not clear who in particular would attend.

“It’s unlikely that the Chinese delegation will have decision-making ability at the meeting, which will make it difficult to accomplish much,” a diplomat from one of the six powers told Reuters.

Another U.N. diplomat described the Chinese decision to send a lower-level representative as a “disappointment.”

However, a third diplomat said this was not unusual.

“It’s not atypical to have a lower level of Chinese representation there,” said a European diplomat. who spoke on condition that he not be identified, saying Beijing may be hesitant to do anything that might irk Iran while China is president of the U.N. Security Council in January.

“There is a slight sense that the Chinese are very cautious about doing anything in New York this month ... (and) for their own bilateral reasons don’t want to initiate anything on their watch.”

“My personal take is that they know that this is coming and that they will get on board at some point but they have not yet signed on for more (sanctions),” he added.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Stacey Joyce

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