China, US praise cooperation despite underlying strains

Posted at 09/05/2012 3:15 PM | Updated as of 09/05/2012 5:02 PM

BEIJING - China and the United States avoided public sniping over maritime tensions on Wednesday, neither yielding ground over South China Sea disputes while nonetheless stressing cooperation as they both focus on political transitions.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi gave avowals of mutual goodwill after their talks, which had been preceded by criticism from Beijing of Clinton's calls for a multi-lateral solution to the territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas.

Clinton told reporters that such disagreements did not have to hobble cooperation with China.

"I'm very proud of the strength and resilience that we have built into our relationship," she said after talks with Yang in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

"It makes it possible for us to talk about anything, and to find ways to tackle issues frankly and forthrightly," Clinton said, adding that the two sides would not see eye-to-eye on all the issues that are part of their vast relationship.

Yang also avoided public sparring.

"We hope that China and the United States will work together to develop a positive and pragmatic relationship," he said, standing beside Clinton at a joint media briefing.

The upbeat remarks underscored efforts by Beijing and Washington to contain quarrels, especially as they focus on domestic political hurdles.

China's ruling Communist Party is preoccupied with a once-in-a-decade leadership over coming months, while President Barack Obama is focused on a re-election fight culminating in November's vote.

But neither side gave ground on the South China Sea disputes, which have emerged as a persistent irritant in relations, reflecting suspicions in Beijing that the Obama administration is seeking to curb Chinese influence.

China's claims over much of the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel islands, have also put it at loggerheads with Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. A similar territorial dispute has set China against Japan in the East China Sea.

China has been irked by the U.S.-backed proposals for a multi-lateral approach to managing and eventually resolving such disputes, preferring to negotiate separately with each of the far less powerful Asian claimants.

"FISHING FOR ADVANTAGE"

The overseas edition of state mouthpiece the People's Daily laid out China's concerns ahead of Clinton's meetings, and suggested the United States is seeking to gain leverage from China's tensions with Japan and Southeast Asian countries.

"The United States' recent conduct concerning the Diaoyu islands and South China Sea issues cannot but create the suspicion that it is attempting to sow discord in order to fish for advantage," said a front-page commentary in the paper, which broadly reflects official thinking.

"In the long term, this kind of adjustment in the United States' Asia-Pacific strategy will not bring gains, and could even backfire," it said.

China and Japan have rival claims to the uninhabited Diaoyu islands -- called Senkaku in Japan -- and surrounding fishing areas and potentially rich gas deposits.

"Regarding the South China Sea, the position of the Chinese government has been consistent and clear cut. China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters," Yang, the foreign minister, told reporters.

Clinton repeated that the United States took no position on the contending claims in the sea, and wanted China and southeast Asian states to agree on a code of conduct to avoid dangerous flare-ups.

The Obama administration wants greater Chinese cooperation on other international problems, including reining in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes, and finding a solution to the Syria crisis.

China's Foreign Minister Yang said his government opposed the efforts of any country, including Iran, to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies having such ambitions.

"We believe the parties should continue to exercise calm and remain committed to diplomatic negotiations," said Yang.

He also repeated China's opposition to external intervention in Syria, while adding that he supported a "period of political transition" in the violence-stricken country.

Clinton said it was "no secret" the Obama administration was disappointed by Chinese and Russian resistance to firmer action on Syria, and said the best course of action remained tougher U.N. Security Council action.

A senior U.S. official told travelling reporters that Vice President Xi Jinping, who is overwhelmingly likely to succeed Hu as president, had to cancel his meeting with Clinton.

Xi also cancelled an earlier meeting with Singapore's prime minister, an indication his absence was not a snub directed at Clinton.