BEIJING -- The U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam last week was an "important step" toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, China's foreign minister said Friday, despite criticism that the meeting ended early without leading to an agreement.
The Hanoi talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were "worthy of full recognition," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's ceremonial legislature.
"We feel like this meeting was an important step in finding a political resolution to the (Korean) Peninsula issue," Wang said. That the two "leaders overcame obstacles to meet again in a candid face-to-face discussion itself represents a positive development that must be applauded."
He encouraged the two countries to "remain patient," and noted that many issues concerning the peninsula "cannot be solved overnight."
Trump and Kim's summit ended abruptly Feb. 28 after a dispute over how much sanctions relief Washington should provide Pyongyang in return for nuclear disarmament steps. No agreement was reached.
Wang said China favors a phased approach to ending the North's nuclear program in return for a reduction in sanctions, in contrast with U.S. demands that Pyongyang end the program permanently in one fell swoop.
"All parties need to have reasonable expectations and one should not set the bar too high at the outset or make unilateral, unrealistic demands," Wang said.
"In China's view, the key to solving the issue lies in not being a prisoner of history and breaking the cycle of mistrust," he said, adding China would continue playing its "irreplaceable role" in promoting negotiations.
China is North Korea's only major ally and a chief provider of energy and trade that keeps the country's broken economy afloat. In recent years, however, China has agreed to increasingly strict United Nations sanctions over the North's nuclear programs and missile tests, although Pyongyang has not carried out such activities for more than a year.
After a period of frosty times, Chinese leader Xi Jinping met four times with Kim last year, Wang noted. He declined to say whether Xi had any plans to visit Pyongyang.
During the wide-ranging two-hour briefing, Wang also strongly defended China's massive "belt and road" initiative against accusations it is miring poor nations in poverty to pay for Chinese financed ports, power plants and highways. Wang said the $1 trillion infrastructure program linking China to Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia had been endorsed by 72 countries and had already racked up considerable success.
China will host a second global meeting on the initiative in Beijing next month, which Wang said would be bigger and more ambitious that the first.
Wang also praised China's growing closeness to Russia in international affairs, saying the two giant neighbors would create a "more peaceful and stable world" by standing together.
Both countries are backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, which has been accused of committing atrocities during the country's bloody civil war, and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, whose government has borrowed billions from China in a bid to remain afloat.
Wang said China would continue efforts to reach an agreement with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to avoid conflicts over the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety. He declined to say whether China would require the code of conduct that it hopes to sign by 2021 be legally binding.
And he said China's diplomats would continue to defend the country's reputation and its citizens following recent disputes with Canada, the U.S. and Sweden that saw Beijing making unusually harsh accusations.
"China will stand up for its rights, but will not seek hegemony," Wang said.