ARLINGTON, Va. — The nation’s top military officer challenged China to respond forcefully to North Korea’s recent attacks on South Korea and rejected Beijing’s calls for a return to negotiations with Kim Jong Il’s regime.

“There is significant leverage [China] could apply to avoiding escalations and improving this troubling situation,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Washington think tank on Wednesday. “We need China to step up.”

Mullen’s comments come one day after the U.S. and South Korea ended naval exercises that brought the USS George Washington carrier strike group to the peninsula’s waters, and the same day the U.S. announced it will hold talks next week with Japan and South Korea.

Since last week’s North Korean artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians, the international community has called on China for a more robust response. China has answered with more calls for a return to the six-party talks, but the U.S., Japan and South Korea have rejected the idea.

“The parties concerned should keep calm and exercise restraint, and work to bring the situation back onto the track of dialogue and negotiation,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, according to an Associated Press report.

“Beijing’s call for consultations will not be a substitute for action,” Mullen said, echoing similar statements from other U.S. officials this week. “And I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea’s provocative and destabilizing behavior with bargaining or new incentives.”

Mullen recounted that in the past year, North Korean attacks on the South also killed 46 sailors in the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, in addition to Pyongyang’s public revelations of advancements in its ability to produce new nuclear weapons.

“The ante’s going up,” Mullen said. “And I think the stakes are going up.”

Mullen said the relationship between U.S. and Chinese militaries was still experiencing “turbulence” but was “on the right trajectory” after a freeze that began in February in protest of a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been invited to Beijing and Pentagon officials said Gates’ visit likely would occur early next year. Mullen said the U.S. seeks, a “deep, broad, continuous military to military relationship” as it has with many other countries, as part of a wider normalization of relations with China.

“Navies are a great place to start,” he said.

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