The United States and China have agreed in principle for the first time to hold regular, senior level talks on a range of political and economic issues. U.S. officials say the decision reflects China's growing global role, including its sponsorship of talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
Officials here say the impetus for the new, more intensive, dialogue came from the Chinese and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conveyed the Bush administration's acceptance of the idea when she visited Beijing last month.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said details of the structure and frequency of the U.S.-Chinese talks are still to be worked out, though they will be chaired on the U.S. side by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.
He said the two sides already have an active dialogue on economic issues but that the new structure will take into account China's growing political role in the region and globally as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council:
"It reflects the growing role that China has been playing in Asia, globally, at the United Nations as a U.N. Security Council member, on many, many world issues. And we have over the past several years, I think, been able to enhance our cooperation with China on many of these issues, whether it's North Korea, the fight against terrorism. We need to work with them in Sudan. All these things," Mr. Boucher says.
According to the Washington Post, Chinese President Hu Jintao proposed to President Bush in Chile last November that the two countries engage in what Chinese officials termed a "strategic dialogue."
But under questioning here, Spokesman Boucher declined to use that formulation, normally reserved for talks with close U.S. allies, saying he would describe the new forum as "regular senior-level talks."
U.S.-Chinese cooperation has increased since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, despite friction over trade issues and Taiwan. The United States has looked to China to prod North Korea to return to the six-party talks Beijing has hosted on that country's nuclear program.
A top North Korea envoy visited Beijing earlier this week amid reports Pyongyang had agreed to return to the talks as early as mid-May, though Spokesman Boucher said no such word has been conveyed to Washington:
"While there have been some statements that indicate a commitment to the six-party process, we still do not have a clear commitment from the North Koreans to come back to talks or a date that they would come back to talks. So the Chinese continue to work these issues," Mr. Boucher says. "We're continuing to keep in touch with them and other parties."
Mr. Boucher reiterated the United States' readiness to return to the talks without preconditions. He said North Korea should similarly be open to serious discussions to resolve the issues of its nuclear program and to "end its international isolation."
The six-party talks have been stalled since a session in Beijing in June of last year.