WASHINGTON – The U.S. will press China to ramp up pressure on North Korea in a round of high-level talks on Wednesday, hoping for action on what Washington sees as a pre-eminent threat, a senior U.S. diplomat said Monday.
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The Trump administration is pursuing a strategy of leaning strenuously on Beijing to curtail North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile programs, but provocations by Pyongyang have continued since President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Florida in April.
The State Department's top diplomat for Asia, Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton, told reporters on Monday that China is the leading facilitator of North Korea's economic activity, and noted that Beijing's ban on buying North Korean coal has had an effect.
"But we would like to see China do more, and we're going to be talking to them about that this week," Ms. Thornton said, adding that the U.S. is working with China to try to crack down on North Korean entities that go through China to do business.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, are hoping to shift the focus of bilateral discussions to trade, as U.S. optimism for further cooperation over North Korea has dimmed.
Emphasizing how both countries stand to gain from closer trade links, Beijing is pointing to its recently lifted restrictions on imports of American beef, after 14 years, and how the growing appetites of Chinese consumers can benefit the U.S.
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"The next step is to import a huge volume of agricultural goods," Wei Jianguo, a former Chinese trade official who is now a senior figure at a state-supported think tank, told foreign reporters in Beijing on Monday. "Ignoring a market this big, how is that going to solve the U.S.'s problems?"
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will host Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff of the People's Liberation Army, at the State Department on Wednesday.
"For North Korea we are...trying to create a global echo chamber," Ms. Thornton said, "where all countries come together behind the U.N. Security Council resolutions that have been developed to address North Korea's illicit weapons programs, and we are trying to get all countries to take actions to increase the pressure on North Korea through sanctions implementation and other measures."
Wednesday's meetings are the latest iteration of bilateral talks between Washington and Beijing that began under the Bush administration. During the Obama administration, economic, diplomatic and security issues were handled on a single track. The Trump administration has altered the format, so that economic ties have their own session. There also are separate tracks for law enforcement and cyber issues, as well as another for cultural exchange.
Ms. Thornton said Washington and Beijing are likely to discuss norms for conduct in cyberspace on Wednesday, rather than specific incidents.
The U.S. also will urge China to pause in its construction projects on contested islands in the South China Sea, to allow China and other claimants to resolve the disputes through diplomacy and international law.
Mr. Trump frequently used heated rhetoric toward China while campaigning for president, but has moderated his tone, particularly after meeting with Mr. Xi, and has linked together the trade and security relationships with China.
He said he told Mr. Xi that China will get a better trade deal "if they solve the North Korea problem."
On Monday, Ms. Thornton said the Trump administration expects that cooperation on North Korea could have broad effects on bilateral ties.
Addressing prospects for enhanced cooperation on North Korea, Ms. Thornton said: "If we're not getting it, it's going to color the sense among people as to whether or not China also wants a constructive and positive relationship with us."
--Josh Chin in Beijing contributed to this article.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 19, 2017 17:57 ET (21:57 GMT)