Clinton in China: The US and China 'are still talking'

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Wednesday with Chinese officials to discuss differences over the conflict in Syria and how best to defuse tensions in the South China Sea.

Jim Watson/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during a joint press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made little headway in winning Beijing’s help in two international flash points, Syria and the South China Sea, as China stood its ground during two days of talks here. 

Ms. Clinton acknowledged that China and the US “do not agree” on how to handle the spreading violence in Syria, but insisted that the two “are still talking.” She said she had been “disappointed” by the way China and Russia have blocked Western efforts at the United Nations Security Council to take tougher measures against President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States also failed to persuade China to quickly negotiate a code of conduct with Southeast Asian nations to defuse tensions in the South China Sea, where Beijing and five neighboring states are pushing rival territorial claims with increasing vigor.

The Chinese government has long shown a preference for dealing with its neighbors one by one, which gives Beijing a diplomatic advantage, rather than as a group in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN.)

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told reporters after his talks with Clinton that “sovereignty disputes … should be discussed by the directly concerned countries” without interference from outside powers.

Both Clinton and Mr. Yang played down their differences, however, preferring to stress how much US-China relations have improved in recent years. Both countries are facing domestic political watersheds – US presidential elections in November and a once-in-a-decade leadership change in China expected to take place as early as next month – and the two officials appeared keen to calm the waters.

Certainly the tone of Yang’s comments differed markedly from the aggressive attacks on Clinton that the state-run media had published in the run-up to her visit. The official Xinhua news agency published a commentary Wednesday demanding that “the United States should stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings.”

Clinton has attracted suspicion in many quarters here for her vocal advocacy of Washington’s “pivot to Asia” and its new diplomatic and military focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

This policy is widely seen in Beijing as a bid to contain China and curb its regional influence.

US moves to base more naval forces in the region and to step up its alliances with countries such as the Philippines are aimed at “checking China’s rise, so as to maintain [US] world hegemony, which is its ultimate strategic goal,” argued an editorial in Tuesday’s Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party.

Clinton, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, seemed to go to great pains to deflect such fears. She repeated, as she has done on almost all her visits to China, the mantra that “the US welcomes a strong, stable, and prosperous China that plays a role in world affairs commensurate with its size and that helps to shape the global order.”

Yang indicated that Beijing would hold Washington to her word, as Chinese power and influence grow. “We have always hoped,” he said, “that the US would make sure that its policies are in conformity with trends of the current era.”

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