WASHINGTON — China indicated for the first time Monday that 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 getting the materials to build a crude nuclear weapon.
The Chinese statement overshadowed an announcement that Ukraine would get rid of all of its highly enriched uranium - enough for several bombs - by 2012, a move that the United States had sought for years.
China's backing of a new U.N. sanctions resolution isn't a foregone conclusion, however. China is unlikely to support sanctions as tough as those that Obama and European leaders are seeking in response to Iran's repeated rejections of U.N. demands that it suspend its uranium enrichment program.
But 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 from the Chinese government's previous refusal to consider new measures against Iran.
China issued the statement after a meeting between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, their fourth meeting in just over a year. The bilateral talks came before the start of the Nuclear Security Summit, attended by dozens of world leaders.
"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 that 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 doubt over whether Hu would come to 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 arranged the summit as part of his push for 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 a U.S. nuclear strike.
Toward a safer world
In brief comments Monday, Obama said he was optimistic that the summit 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.
Ukraine's announcement that it will dispose of its highly enriched uranium by 2012 came in a joint statement issued after talks between Obama and recently elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
U.S. officials have been trying for years to persuade Ukraine to part with more than 90 kilograms, or about 198 pounds, of highly enriched uranium fuel for three research reactors that it inherited when the former Soviet Union collapsed.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the United States would provide technical assistance to Ukraine for converting the reactors to low-enriched uranium fuel, which can't be used in bombs.
'A sign of unity'
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 that 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 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.
White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said that Obama "believes we need to move forward with urgency" and the new resolution should be ready "in a matter of weeks."
A draft of the new sanctions resolution, which hasn't been made public, is thought to target Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and businesses associated with it, as well as Iran's shipping lines and banks.