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In China, Kerry talks NKorea, regional tensions

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Kerry is meeting senior Chinese officials on Friday in Beijing to seek their help in bringing a belligerent North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Kerry is meeting senior Chinese officials on Friday in Beijing to seek their help in bringing a belligerent North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second left, walks to his plane to depart on a flight to Beijing on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Seoul, South Korea. Kerry is visiting South Korea, China, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates on a seven-day trip. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Kerry is meeting senior Chinese officials on Friday in Beijing to seek their help in bringing a belligerent North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, is greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Kerry is meeting senior Chinese officials on Friday in Beijing to seek their help in bringing a belligerent North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

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BEIJING (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday appealed for China’s help in bringing a belligerent North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks but faced an uncertain response as the request was accompanied by demands for Beijing to roll back a series of increasingly aggressive steps it 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 program and said he urged Beijing to “use every tool at its disposal” to convince its communist neighbor to return to 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 Chinese officials told him they were willing to take additional steps to achieve North Korean denuclearization and the sides traded ideas for further consideration.

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.

Meanwhile, China has angrily dismissed U.S criticism over its moves in the East and South China seas that have alarmed U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines. Most worrisome is Beijing’s 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.

In a stridently anti-Japanese editorial appearing Friday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency 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,” Xinhua 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.”

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.

Kerry struck an upbeat tone in meetings with his Chinese hosts, telling Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the U.S. looked forward to “managing our differences effectively and finding a way to cooperate practically where possible.”

Efforts toward that end, he said, would rely heavily on China putting pressure on Pyongyang.

“China has a unique and critical role that it can play,” Kerry said. “No country has a greater potential to influence North Korea’s behavior than China, given their extensive trading relationship with the North.”

But China’s leverage with the North is being tested.

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

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