The top diplomats for the United States and China said they had made headway on Tuesday in forging a response to North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests, but the two powers remain far apart on Beijing's increasing military buildup in the South China Sea.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Washington to try to break weeks of stalemate in U.N. Security Council negotiations on sanctions to impose on North Korea over its Jan. 6 atomic test.
"Important progress has been made in the consultations and we are looking at the possibility of reaching agreement on a draft resolution and passing it in the near future," Wang said at a news conference with Kerry.
"We have made significant progress, it has been very constructive in the last days, and there is no question that if the resolution is approved, it will go beyond anything that we have previously passed," Kerry said.
"I believe that what we are considering is significant but, as I say, it is in the appropriate evaluative stages and we both hope that this can move forward very soon," added Kerry.
Both China and the U.S. oppose North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, but Beijing has balked at imposing the tough sanctions Washington is seeking.
While China fears that imposing those strictures could destabilize neighboring North Korea, a traditional ally, President Barack Obama signed legislation last week imposing even more stringent U.S. sanctions that aim to restrict North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's access to hard currency.
Those restrictions could hurt Chinese banks and companies that do business connected to the North's nuclear and missile programs and its human rights abuses.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Seoul over plans to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) in the South as a response North Korea’s nuclear test and rocket launch have also angered China.
On Tuesday China's ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, warned that deployment of the missile defense system could irreparably damage Beijing-Seoul ties, the AFP reported.
Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday that China's stance on the missile shield is "preposterous" and called on Beijing to focus on reining in North Korea.
"I find it preposterous that China wedges itself between South Korea and the United States for a missile system designed to defend Americans and Koreans on the peninsula," he said.
"If they were truly concerned, if they truly interested, I believe China would and should intervene with North Korea and convince them to quit their cycle of provocation," Harris added.
Harris' testimony and remarks by Kerry and Wang underscored the wide gap over the South China Sea, where Washington and Beijing have been accusing each other of militarizing a vital waterway contested by China and several of its smaller neighbors.
China 'clearly militarizing' disputed seas
Harris said Chinese DF-21 and DF-26 anti-ship missiles deployed on Woody Island and other recent steps meant that China is "clearly militarizing" the South China Sea.
"You'd have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise," he told the hearing.
In his news conference with Wang, Kerry said moves by China, Vietnam and others had created an "escalatory cycle."
"What we are trying to do it break that cycle," he said.
"Regrettably there are missiles and fighter aircraft and guns and other things that have been placed into the South China Sea and this if of great concern to everyone who transits and relies on the South China Sea for peaceful trade," he added.
Wang criticized U.S. air and naval patrols in the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
"We don’t hope to see any more close-up military reconnaissance, or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea," he said.
China has been building islands on top of the reefs and atolls it controls, then adding air strips, harbors and other infrastructure that would help consolidate its control. Five other governments also hold maritime claims that overlap with Beijing's, and the U.S. has said it is concerned about China's militarization of the area.
Beijing rejects the accusations, saying it is merely installing defensive measures on islands, primarily for civilian purposes.
Fox News reported on Tuesday that China had deployed fighter planes on Woody Island, where the missile batteries were detected last week.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies said satellite imagery show possible radar installations on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson South and Cuarteron reefs that could be key to helping China establish effective control over the strategically vital area's sea and airspace.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no specific information about the CSIS report, but said China had undisputed sovereignty over the area, AP reported.
"It's within China's sovereignty to carry out constructions on its own territories," Hua told reporters. "By deploying some necessary defensive facilities on the relevant islands and reefs it defends in the South China Sea, China is exercising the right of self-preservation that every country enjoys according to international law, which is beyond reproach."