Clinton proposes China, Japan join 3-way talks with U.S. to ease tensions

Southeast Asian leaders meet in Hanoi this week to push ahead plans for a political and economic community by 2015.
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 9:27 PM

SANYA, CHINA - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told China on Saturday that she expects Beijing to press North Korea not to take "provocative steps" against South Korea. She also appealed to Chinese and Japanese officials Saturday to end their month-long spat.

Chinese officials told Clinton, for their part, that China was committed to maintaining its exports of rare-earth minerals - crucial to the manufacture of many high-technology products - despite reports that it had halted its sales to gain diplomatic leverage over Japan and the United States.

Clinton's demands for help dealing with North Korea underscored U.S. concern about reports indicating increased activity at nuclear sites in the reclusive state and worries about possible North Korean mischief in the run-up to the meeting of the Group of 20 major economies scheduled to begin Nov. 11 in Seoul. The United States is also alarmed by the persistence of a dispute between China and Japan over islands in the western Pacific. In an attempt to get the two sides talking again, Clinton proposed a three-way meeting among officials from Washington, Tokyo and Beijing, although the Chinese appeared cool to the idea.

Clinton met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi while attending a summit of 18 Asian nations in Hanoi before she flew to the southern Chinese resort city of Sanya to see State Councilor Dai Bingguo, China's top foreign policy official. Her meetings indicated that the United States and China are still patching up relations after a string of clashes over China's unwillingness to significantly revalue its currency, its claims to swaths of open ocean, its increasingly close ties to North Korea and U.S. concerns that China's oil firms will boost their investments in Iran as Western and Japanese firms pull out in response to expanded U.N. and national sanctions on Tehran. President Obama is scheduled to host China's President Hu Jintao at a summit in Washington early next year.

Clinton pressed both Yang and Dai on the North Korean issue, officials said. A satellite image taken in late September by DigitalGlobe, a U.S.-based commercial satellite firm, showed new construction or excavation activity in an area surrounding a destroyed cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear site, where North Korea produced plutonium for its first bomb tests. Experts said the construction appeared to be the first sign of significant activity at Yongbyon since 2008, when the cooling tower was demolished as part of an agreement made during now-stalled negotiations over the North's nuclear program.

"There have been public reports of various activities underway," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as part of briefing rules with reporters. He noted that North Korea has also just held an "unusual" congress of its ruling Korean Workers' Party, during which Kim Jong Eun, a son of ruler Kim Jong Il and a virtual unknown, was elevated to senior party and military positions.

In addition, North Korea has a history of attempting to mark important South Korean events with violent attacks.

"We're right on the verge of one of the most important diplomatic functions to have occurred on the Korean Peninsula," the official said. "We have made it very clear to China that we expect it to weigh in on the need [for North Korea] to in no way take provocative steps."

Analysts expected tensions between China and Japan to ease, but it flared again in recent days. China's premier refused to meet with the Japanese prime minister in Hanoi, after Japan reiterated its claims to the islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu islands in Chinese.

"We've recommended to both [Japan and China] that the United States is more than willing to host a trilateral where we would bring China and Japan and their foreign ministers together to discuss a range of issues," Clinton said at a news conference after the Hanoi summit ended.

China's Foreign Ministry did not mention the U.S. proposal. In a statement, it quoted Yang, the foreign minister, as warning Clinton to "be cautious in both wording and actions" over the islands.

Relations between Japan and China began to deteriorate last month when Japan's coast guard detained a Chinese fishing boat captain after he plowed his trawler into two coast guard vessels near the Senkakus. The islands, controlled by Japan, have long been claimed by China. In response, China canceled meetings with Japanese officials and stopped exporting rare-earth minerals, crucial to Japan's economy. Japan then released the captain.

The escalation of the spat to include an export blockade worried Washington, especially because China has a near monopoly on rare-earth exports. Rare-earth minerals are 17 elements vital to the manufacture of high-tech products ranging from cellphones to the U.S. military's precision-guided munitions.

On Saturday, Clinton addressed that issue as well with Yang and Dai.

"Foreign Minister Yang has clarified that China has no intention of withholding these minerals from the market," Clinton said. Still, she added, the affair had convinced her that the United States and other interested countries need to work to secure an independent supply of the minerals. China produces 97 percent of the world's supply of rare earths.

To some extent, the United States has profited from the recent tension between China and many Asian countries. Over the past six months, it has improved its ties with countries throughout Southeast Asia, as well as with South Korea and Japan, in part because of China's missteps.

But Clinton's push for better ties between Tokyo and Beijing indicates clearly that Washington wants the tension to subside.

"The stakes are so high . . . we think [it's] right to initiate some sort of dialogue," the senior official said. "Contrary to some reports that we are stoking the issue, that's not the case. We want very much to see a better relationship."


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