WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday welcomed China’s decision to join talks on imposing new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and said President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this month could set the stage for tougher action on Tehran.
In twin moves that could ease strained Sino-U.S. ties, China announced Hu would attend a nuclear security summit in Washington on April 12-13 while its diplomats signaled readiness to join serious negotiations with Western powers on new sanctions on Iran.
The announcement of Hu’s visit caps a period of uncertainty after quarrels between Washington and Beijing over internet censorship, Tibet, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan and U.S. charges that China keeps its yuan currency undervalued.
Some analysts say it also may cut chances the U.S. Treasury will label China a currency manipulator in a report due out on April 15 — backing away from confrontation as Chinese officials wrangle over whether to allow the yuan to rise.
At the United Nations, diplomats said the United States, Britain, France and Germany expect to meet with both Russia and China next week to begin drafting specific sanctions proposals that U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to see brought to a vote within weeks.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said the White House was pleased Hu was coming to the Washington summit, which he called an important step in global unity on moving to new sanctions.
“We’re going to continue that process and the president thinks that this spring we’re going to be able to be in a place where there’s an agreement of those nations to apply real pressure to Iran,” Burton said.
Despite signs that differences were narrowing, the White House repeated Obama’s view that any Chinese move to a more market-oriented exchange rate would help global rebalancing.
A senior Democratic senator said no deals should be made that let China off the hook.
“No amount of cooperation from China on other issues should divert the U.S. from pursuing fair treatment on currency,” said Senator Charles Schumer, co-author of a Senate bill that would penalize China if it does not change its currency policy.
The U.S. Treasury Department had no comment on Thursday.
U.S. officials were clearly pleased by China’s agreement to discuss sanctions after months of fending off Western demands for pressure on Iran, which Western countries accuse of seeking the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.
“China is responding to the same set of facts that we have been responding to,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a news briefing.
“China has indicated a willingness to be a full participant as we go through the specifics of what would be in a resolution,” he said.
But officials also concede that reaching agreement on any new round of U.N. sanctions could take time. One Western diplomat said he expected the ambassadors of the six powers now discussing sanctions to meet early next week to start work.
“This is a process of consultation and negotiation and it’s going to take a thorough effort at negotiation to get the strongest possible text,” a U.S. official said.
If the six powers agree on a draft resolution, they will present it to the other 10 Security Council members. The negotiations are liable to run into resistance from some, notably Lebanon, Turkey and Brazil.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin declined to discuss specifics and stressed hopes for diplomatic compromise. “China is highly concerned about the current situation and will strengthen cooperation with all parties,” he said.
China has long been reluctant to back new sanctions on Iran, a big supplier of oil for the growing Asian power.
A diplomat with knowledge of the talks said on Thursday China probably would support U.S. proposals to blacklist banks, impose travel bans and freeze assets, but would not be happy to blacklist Iranian shipping companies, ban arms imports, or target oil and gas industries as proposed by France.
Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said he expected the issue to come up at next month’s nuclear summit, which could see Obama appealing to Hu directly for tougher action.
“I am certain that there will be a range of issues discussed during these bilaterals and Iran will be one of them,” he said.
Matthew Bunn, nuclear safety expert at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said Hu’s visit and China’s shifting stance on Iran reflected a more mature approach to Beijing’s global responsibilities.
“They’re both new signals of Chinese seriousness about being a responsible part of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons,” he said.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili arrived in Beijing on Thursday. He will meet Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese diplomat who serves as a state councilor advising leaders on foreign policy.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in Tehran on Thursday past sanctions against Iran have not worked, the IRNA news agency said. He said other nations should not use “incorrect methods like pressuring and sanctioning.”
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Parisa Hafezi in Tehran; David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Conor Sweeney in Moscow, writing by Andrew Quinn; editing by Matt Spetalnick and Mohammad Zargham