Clinton Stresses Closer With China Amid Disputes

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and China’s leaders sought to play down differences over Asian territorial disputes and pledged closer ties even as her meeting with President Hu Jintao’s likely successor was canceled.

Speaking at a press conference with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing yesterday, Clinton discussed Chinese concerns that the U.S. is taking sides in maritime spats between China and its neighbors, including American allies Japan and the Philippines. She said the Obama administration wants to preserve freedom of navigation and urged talks to resolve the tensions.

While the U.S. and China don’t “see eye to eye” on everything, “we are convinced that our two countries gain far more when we cooperate with one another than when we descend into unhealthy competition,” Clinton said.

Yang echoed those remarks and called the talks “constructive and productive” while reasserting China’s claims to South China Sea islands and “their adjacent waters.”

Any territorial disputes should be resolved among the “directly concerned” Asian countries and handled by “direct negotiations,” he said.

Clinton, touring the Asia region, arrived today in East Timor and will later visit Brunei before heading to Vladivostok, Russia, where she will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Meeting Canceled

In contrast to rhetoric in the Chinese media accusing the U.S. of stirring up discord over the maritime conflicts, Clinton and Yang stressed cooperation on issues including economic growth and diplomacy to avert nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. Her visit comes ahead of China’s once-a-decade leadership handover and the U.S. presidential election.

Clinton’s briefing with Yang was held after her session with Vice President Xi Jinping, the leading candidate to succeed Hu when the Communist Party Congress meets, was canceled. She was told Sept. 4 that Xi wouldn’t be able to meet yesterday and had canceled other appointments as well. The New York Times cited unidentified diplomats as saying they were told Xi hurt his back.

Asked if the cancellation was a snub, Yang said he hoped “people won’t have unnecessary speculation. We attach a great deal of importance to the Secretary’s visit.”

Just hours before Clinton left Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, a protege of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai, was charged with bending the law for selfish ends, defection, power abuse and bribe-taking.

Bo Affair

Wang’s visit in February to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan in southwestern China, touched off a series of events that led to Bo’s downfall and sparked China’s deepest political crisis in more than two decades. Chinese officials didn’t mention the development to Clinton before the news report, U.S. officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity about private communications.

Li Cheng, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, said in a telephone interview that he sees no significance in the charges coming as Clinton was in the country.

China has become increasingly assertive in the South China Sea as it looks to lock up resources to meet its demands as the world’s largest energy users. Those moves have encountered opposition from countries including Vietnam and the Philippines.

China’s Claim

“China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters,” Yang said. “There is plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence for that.”

At stake are oil reserves of as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That compares with 265.4 billion barrels of proven reserves held by Saudi Arabia as of 2011, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

State-run media commentaries over the last week have accused the U.S. of meddling in the South and East China Seas disputes and trying to “contain” China’s rise by expanding the American naval and military presence in the Pacific.

“Seeing the ‘pivot’ to Asia, the U.S. has fomented surrounding countries into confronting China over territorial disputes, so as to disturb and check China’s rise,” the state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial yesterday. The Xinhua News Agency on Sept. 4 issued a commentary saying the U.S. “should stop its role as a sneaky trouble maker.”

Asked whether he shared the view that the U.S is seeking to curtail China’s rise, Yang replied that his government wants to work with the U.S. and other countries to promote “openness, inclusiveness, mutual benefit and win-win progress” in the Asia-Pacific.

Regional Interests

“Nowhere else do China and the United States share more convergent interests and interact more frequently than in the Asia-Pacific region,” Yang said. At the same time, he said China hopes the U.S. will make sure its policy is in line “with the trends of the current era and the general wish of countries in the region to seek peace, development and cooperation.”

Clinton said it’s “no secret” that the U.S. is disappointed with China and Russia for blocking tougher United Nations Security Council resolutions against Syria. The U.S. is pushing for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has been battling rebels for almost 18 months in a conflict that has killed more than 23,000 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Any solution should come from people of Syria and reflect their wishes,” Yang said. “It should not be imposed from outside.”

The two also discussed cyber attacks, which Clinton said are of “increasing concern to the business community as well as the government of the United States.”

Clinton also met yesterday with Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Dai Bingguo.

— With assistance by Indira Lakshmanan

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