Monday, June 22, 2009

US Defense Official to Hold Talks in Beijing

The Irrawaddy News

BEIJING (AP)— A US Defense Department official is headed to Beijing for talks amid ongoing tensions in the region over North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy will lead the US delegation for the US-China Defense Consultative Talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, the US Embassy said, without providing information on the agenda.

Flournoy was due to travel onward to South Korea for talks with officials in Seoul on Friday.

China is North Korea's most important ally and supplier of economic assistance. It played host to six-nation talks aimed at pressing the North to halt its nuclear programs in return for financial aid and diplomatic inducements.

North Korea has since snubbed those talks, conducted an atomic test in May and threatened war in response to UN sanctions. It also test-fired a ballistic missile and is reportedly preparing for another long-range missile launch and a third nuclear test.

China has publicly opposed the North's provocations and supported UN sanctions against the regime. However, Beijing opposes harsher measures that could send its isolated hard-line communist neighbor tottering and spark a refugee crisis on its border.

Flournoy was due to meet with Chinese officials including People's Liberation Army deputy chief of staff, Lt-Gen Ma Xiaotian, who last month told an international security forum that Beijing "has expressed a firm opposition and grave concern about the nuclear test."

South Korea has proposed that it and the other four nations in the talks meet to decide future steps, possibly on the sidelines of a regional security forum scheduled in Phuket, Thailand, in July. The US and Japan have agreed to participate, while China and Russia have yet to respond, according to a South Korean Foreign Ministry official.

Despite closer consultations about North Korea, US-China military contacts have proceeded only intermittently amid continuing suspicions about each others intentions. Beijing last year called off some meetings to express its dissatisfaction over US arms sales to self-governing Taiwan, the island Beijing claims as its own territory.

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