BEIJING (Reuters) - China has agreed to serious negotiations with Western powers about imposing new sanctions on Iran and President Hu Jintao will attend a multi-nation summit on nuclear security in Washington this month, officials said.
The two moves should dilute tensions between Beijing and Washington after months of quarrels over the yuan currency, Internet censorship, Tibet and U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan.
The agreement to discuss sanctions marked a significant shift by China after months of fending off Western nations' demands for concerted pressure on Tehran, which they accuse of seeking the means to assemble nuclear weapons.
Beijing has also been coy up to now about whether Hu will attend the April 12-13 nuclear summit in Washington, which would come days before the U.S. Treasury is set to release a report that could accuse China of manipulating its currency to give its exporters a competitive advantage.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Thursday that Hu would attend the Washington meeting.
The United States' ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said on Wednesday her government, Britain, France, Russia and Germany had agreed with China to begin discussing a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution with new sanctions on Iran.
"This is progress, but the negotiations have yet to begin in earnest," Rice said in an interview on CNN.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin would not discuss specifics and stressed China's continued hopes for diplomatic compromise. "China is highly concerned about the current situation and will strengthen cooperation with all parties," he said.
China has long been reluctant to back new sanctions on Iran, a big supplier of oil for the growing Asian power.
A diplomat with knowledge of the talks said on Thursday China would probably support U.S. proposals to blacklist banks, impose travel bans and freeze assets, but would not be happy to blacklist Iranian shipping companies, ban arms imports, or target oil and gas industries as proposed by France.
"We are really at the start of the process," the diplomat said. "The bottom line was to get China at the table, but where we end up is anyone's guess. The paper on the table is the U.S. one, but it's quite far out and there's no way any resolution will end up looking like that. it's a starting point."
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili arrived in Beijing on Thursday where he will meet Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese diplomat who serves as a State Councillor advising leaders on foreign policy.
"Sanctions now appear to be a foregone conclusion. The likelihood of the resolution passing in the Security Council is high," said Jin Liangxiang, a Middle East specialist at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, China has the power to veto any resolution. But Beijing appears to be losing some patience with Iran.
Jin said the sanctions were likely to "hit decision-makers and interests in Iran", but not seriously affect China's economies and energy ties.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said any measures "should be focused, pinpointed and have the aim of strengthening the non-proliferation regime".
"We are still convinced that an approach toward using sanctions needs to be balanced and proportional, depending on the degree of cooperation on the part of Iran, and should not shut the door to further dialogue," he said.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in Tehran on Thursday past sanctions against Iran have not worked, the IRNA news agency reported. He said other nations should not use "incorrect methods like pressuring and sanctioning."
Guo Xiangang, a former Chinese diplomat to Tehran, said Beijing was likely to bow only so far to the Western demands for tough sanctions.
"I'd guess that China can accept something a bit harsher (than past sanctions on Iran), but not too harsh. It will remain principally a symbolic warning to Iran," said Guo, who is now a vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, a government thinktank in Beijing.
He said Beijing would seek to ensure that any financial sanctions did not threaten to entangle its energy and investment deals with Iran.
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Parisa Hafezi in Tehran; David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Conor Sweeney in Moscow, editing by Diana Abdallah