WASHINGTON — China on Monday indicated for the first time it might back new U.N. sanctions against Iran, giving a significant boost to President Barack Obama as he opened a 47-nation summit called to energize global efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining materials for use in a crude nuclear weapon.
The Chinese statement overshadowed an announcement Ukraine would get rid of all of its highly enriched uranium — enough for several bombs — by 2012, a move the United States had sought for years.
China’s backing of a new U.N. sanctions resolution isn’t a foregone conclusion, however. It’s unlikely to support sanctions as tough as those Obama and European leaders seek in response to Iran’s repeated rejections of U.N. demands it suspend a uranium enrichment program Western powers charge is for nuclear weapons. Iran says it doesn’t seek nuclear arms.
However, a statement by China that “it stands ready to maintain consultation and coordination with the United States” on a new U.N. sanctions resolution marked a shift in Beijing’s previous refusal to consider new measures against Iran.
China issued the statement after talks ahead of the opening of the Nuclear Security Summit between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, their fourth meeting in just over a year.
“The Chinese very clearly share our concern about the Iranian nuclear program,” said Jeffrey Bader, Obama’s top Asia adviser. “The resolution will make clear to Iran the costs of pursuing a nuclear program that violates Iran’s obligations and responsibilities.”
More broadly, the statement indicated the United States and China have managed to set aside tensions over new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, and disputes over trade and the value of the Chinese currency that at one point cast some doubt over Hu’s attendance at the summit.
Presidents, prime ministers, kings and other leaders from 46 countries converged on Washington for the gathering, which the White House described as the largest international conference in the United States since the meeting that founded the United Nations in 1945.
Obama called the summit as part of his plan to seek a world without nuclear arms, which last week saw him sign a new nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia. He also rolled out a new U.S. nuclear strategy forswearing the development of new warheads and vastly reducing the number of nations that could be targeted by U.S. nuclear strike.
In brief comments Monday, Obama said he was optimistic the summit attendees would commit to his goal of securing all stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium vulnerable to theft within four years and work to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear materials.
“I think at the end of this we’re going to see some very specific, concrete actions that each nation is taking that will make the world a little bit safer,” he said.
The day was tempered, however, by a new report that said it was unlikely Obama would accomplish his goal of “locking down” within four years the world’s stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that are considered vulnerable to theft by criminals and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida.
“To meet that objective, the Nuclear Security Summit and the efforts that follow will have to shift the nuclear security effort onto a faster and broader trajectory,” said the study, published by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nongovernmental policy center.
There are some 3.5 million pounds of highly enriched uranium and half a million pounds of bomb-grade plutonium in the world, according to the Belfer Center. Most of the materials are in the United States and Russia, but there also are large stocks in countries with significant security concerns such as Pakistan.
Security for the two-day meeting at the Washington Convention Center was rigid, with armed police and secret service agents manning checkpoints at downtown intersections and streets closed off by high metal barricades and dump trucks.
Obama spent the first part of the day meeting visiting leaders. They included Hu, whose support Obama needs for any U.N. sanctions against Iran, whose uranium enrichment program is based on technology secretly bought from a Pakistani-led smuggling ring.
Bader said much of the 90-minute session focused on Iran, and he called the discussion “another sign of international unity.”
“The two presidents agreed that the two delegations should work on a sanctions resolution in New York, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
China, which has significant trade and energy ties with Iran, had consistently opposed new sanctions. However, it joined the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Germany — known as the P5 plus 1 — at the United Nations last week for the first time in talks on a new resolution.
China apparently has reconsidered its position in the wake of a Russian shift toward supporting new measures after a revelation in September that Iran was secretly building an uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom and Iran’s unveiling last week of a new machine that could speed up its enrichment drive.