US and Chinese diplomatic and defense chiefs will meet Wednesday for a security dialogue that Washington says will focus on curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will attend the talks in Washington. China will be represented by the country’s top diplomat State Councilor Yang Jiechi and the head of the People’s Liberation Army General Fang Fenghui, the US State Department said.

It will be the first session of the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue set up by President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a summit in Florida in April.

The State Department said the aim was “to expand areas of cooperation while narrowing differences on key diplomatic and security issues.”

US-China ties have warmed since the April summit, in spite of US concerns about China’s pursuit of territory in the South China Sea and a large trade imbalance.

Tillerson has said North Korea will top the agenda and made clear that Washington wanted more help from China in pressing Pyongyang to abandon its weapons programs, calling Chinese efforts so far “notable” but “uneven.”

The focus on North Korea has been sharpened by dozens of North Korean missile launches and two nuclear bomb tests since the beginning of last year.

North Korea says it is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States, and this week Mattis called it the “most urgent” threat to US national security.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

China is party to UN economic sanctions on North Korea. But it remains the country’s main ally and trading partner and has been reluctant to impose the punishing measures experts say are needed to get Pyongyang to abandon its weapons programs.

Analysts say China doesn’t want a collapse of the North Korean regime as it will create a massive refugee crisis on its own border.

“The two sides are in close communication about the schedule, but the issues discussed will be those that both countries are concerned about and that involve China-US relations, ” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in Beijing when asked about the talks in Washington.

Tillerson has said Washington was considering imposing “secondary sanctions” on foreign firms doing business with North Korea and discussed with Beijing about the activities of entities inside China.

A Washington think tank last week said North Korea’s effort to circumvent sanctions was complex but could be defeated by targeting relatively few Chinese firms.

The UN Security Council expanded targeted sanctions against North Korea this month in the first such resolution agreed by the United States and China since Trump took office.

Washington has been pushing for even tougher steps, including an oil embargo, a ban on North Korea’s airline and overseas workers, and interception of its cargo ships.

Ahead of the Washington talks, the US said it also wants China to become more involved in supporting the global fight against terrorism and efforts to defeat Islamic State, including in Iraq.

An image grab from propaganda video released by ISIS shows fighters with the trademark Jihadists flag. Photo: AFP
An image grab from propaganda video released by ISIS shows fighters with the trademark Jihadists flag. Photo: AFP

Susan Thornton, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said that China has taken only a limited role in counter-terrorism efforts, although it appeared to be becoming more interested.

“We would like to see them step up and take more responsibility,” Thornton told reporters as Washington.

“They have a lot of interests, for example in Iraq, and we think they should be doing to more to contribute to the efforts of the international coalition to defeat ISIS (Islamic State),” she said.

Thornton said Beijing, which is not a member of the 68-member coalition, was increasingly affected by terrorism, as was seen by the recent killing of two Chinese nationals in Pakistan.

Beijing has sent out “early feelers” about getting more involved, Thornton said.