BEIJING - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday he had won a commitment from China to help bring a belligerent North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks, even as he butted heads with Chinese leaders over a series of increasingly aggressive steps Beijing has taken to assert itself in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors.
Kerry met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials as he sought to underscore the Obama administration's commitment to refocusing U.S. foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific amid myriad other global priorities. He addressed issues ranging from climate change, human rights and rule of law, to Syria and Iran with his Chinese hosts.
Speaking to reporters following those talks, Kerry praised China for joining with the U.S. in calling for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs and said he urged Beijing to "use every tool at its disposal" to convince its communist neighbor to return to the long-stalled disarmament talks.
North Korea "must take meaningful, concrete and irreversible steps toward verifiable denuclearization and it needs to begin now," Kerry said. "China could not have more forcefully reiterated its commitment to that goal, its interest in achieving that goal and its concerns about not achieving that goal."
Kerry said the Chinese officials had told him they were willing to take additional steps to achieve North Korean denuclearization and that both sides had traded ideas for further consideration. He did not elaborate on what those steps were, but a day earlier in South Korea had suggested they could involve reductions in commercial and energy trade between China and North Korea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, said China would never allow chaos or war on the Korean Peninsula.
"China is serious on this, as shown not only in our words but in our actions," Wang said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
While China is North Korea's only significant ally and main source of economic assistance, the extent of China's influence, and willingness to use it, is unclear following a purge in the isolated country's leadership.
Diplomats say Beijing received no prior warning ahead of the December arrest and execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had been considered Pyongyang's point man on China affairs and was a strong promoter of free trade zones being set up along their mutual border.
That came on the heels of Pyongyang's snubbing of Beijing's wishes when it conducted a missile test in late 2012, followed by the underground detonation of a nuclear device last spring.
Jang's removal was seen as depriving Beijing of its chief conduit into the North Korean regime and in the weeks that followed the leadership found itself at a loss as to how to proceed. A delegation of Chinese diplomats led by the Foreign Ministry's deputy head of Asian affairs visited Pyongyang last week in a sign that Beijing was attempting to renew dialogue with Kim's government, although it remains to be seen whether the North was any more receptive to China's pleas to return to the nuclear talks.
Those discussions involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan, broke down at the end of 2008 and U.S. officials say they see no point of restarting talks until Pyongyang shows an authentic desire to make good on its prior commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs.
While praising China for its stance on North Korea, Kerry was less sanguine about Beijing's response to U.S. concerns about its increasing territorial assertiveness, especially as it relates to declaring an air defense zone over contested areas in the East China Sea and suggestions it might do the same in the South China Sea.
Kerry said he told the Chinese of the "need to establish a calmer, more rule-of-law based, less confrontational approach" with respect to its territorial disputes.
But he said the Chinese side complained that others were responsible for raising tensions over competing territorial claims. He said he urged all sides to show restraint and said any further Chinese moves, particularly on any future air defense zones, should be conducted in an "open, transparent, accountable way."
China has rejected U.S. criticism of its actions in the past and in response to Kerry on Frirday, Wang, the foreign minister, called on the U.S. to respect China's sovereign interests in the East China South China seas. According to Xinhua, Wang said no one can shake China's determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Since sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests rocked major Chinese cities in late 2012, Beijing has continually stepped up its rhetoric against Tokyo, dispatching its diplomats to make China's case in the global media and at international forums, even dogging Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent trip to Africa.
Most worryingly, Beijing is locked in bitter territorial dispute with Tokyo over uninhabited islands that has brought patrol craft from the two into regular confrontation. China also raised regional concerns last year by unilaterally declaring an air defense zone over a vast swath of the East China Sea that Japan and the U.S. have refused to recognize.
Recent weeks have seen China's ambassador to London compare Japan to the evil Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter books in the pages of Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. On Thursday, the official China Daily newspaper devoted a half page to grievances against Japan, while the Foreign Ministry revived the case of a 2010 confrontation between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard ships to demand an apology and compensation from Tokyo.
And on Friday, in a stridently anti-Japanese editorial, Xinhua said the U.S. must pressure Tokyo into ceasing its "provocative moves" or risk a regional conflict in the future.
"The United States has to know that, while Beijing has always been trying to address territorial brawls with some neighboring countries through peaceful means, it will not hesitate to take steps to secure its key national security interests according to China's sovereign rights," it said. "To dial down the flaring regional tensions, what Washington is expected to do right at the moment is not to blame China but press Japan to call off its provocative moves."
Chinese ships have also stepped up their presence in the South China Sea, particularly in regards to the Philippines, which is seen by Beijing as weak and overly dependent on the U.S. for protection. Diplomats are concerned that Beijing may be planning to declare an air defense zone above those heavily traversed waters, further raising the chances of confrontation with American surveillance planes and other military flights.
Kerry said he had urged the Chinese to show restraint, cool down its rhetoric and actions, and clarify its claims consistent with international law.
Associated Press reporter Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.