China and the United States appeared unable to bridge their differences over the South China Sea issue and Syria, but pledged to work together to build trust as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concluded a day of meetings with the Chinese leadership in Beijing on Wednesday.
Ms. Clinton, who met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and also held talks with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, reiterated her calls for China to push forward talks to agree on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea before November's East Asia Summit. Chinese officials, however, did not commit to a timeline and rebutted U.S. concerns about its interests in the region by stressing that freedom of navigation in the contested waters had been fully guaranteed.
Differences notwithstanding, both sides appeared keen to highlight their desire to work together and minimise differences at a sensitive time for both Beijing and Washington. The once-in-a-decade leadership transition in China is set to be formalised at next month’s 18th Party Congress, scheduled to be held only a few weeks before the U.S. election.
President Hu Jintao praised Ms. Clinton’s contributions to the relationship – this is expected to be her last visit to China as Secretary of State – and stressed that China was willing to “eliminate any disturbance in order to ensure that bilateral ties will forge ahead in the right direction.”
“The China-U.S. relations have great strategic significance and global influence, and this is worth cherishing and protecting,” Mr. Hu was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
Ms. Clinton acknowledged to reporters that while differences persisted, both sides were “able to explore areas of agreement and disagreement in a very open manner, which I think demonstrates the maturity of the relationship and the chance to take it further in the future.”
The Secretary of State was given a red-carpet welcome on Wednesday morning at the Great Hall of the People. Besides meeting with Mr. Hu, she held talks with Premier Wen Jiabao and his anointed successor Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
A meeting with Vice President Xi Jinping, who is set to succeed Mr. Hu following the transition, was cancelled at the last minute. Mr. Xi’s other engagements on Wednesday, including with the visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, were also cancelled. U.S. officials were quoted as saying that a back injury was the reason. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi only told reporters that “unnecessary speculation” was unwarranted, without giving the reason for the cancellations.
Ms. Clinton, in her talks with Mr. Yang, repeated her call, made recently in Jakarta, for China and other ASEAN countries to “help lower the tensions" in the South China Sea and "create the Code of Conduct… hopefully in preparation for the East Asia Summit”.
Mr. Yang, however, did not commit to a time-frame for the Code of Conduct, only repeating China’s position that the dispute should be solved through dialogue and that countries needed to abide by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC). He also repeated China’s position that it would discuss disputes through bilateral talks with concerned countries, rejecting U.S. calls for a multilateral approach.
The two countries also appeared unable to bridge differences on Syria. Ms. Clinton said pointedly that it was "no secret that we have been disappointed by Russia and China’s actions blocking tougher U.N. Security Council resolutions."
Mr. Yang defended China’s position, saying that “history will judge” that it had promoted “the appropriate handling of the situation.” “For what we have in mind,” he said, “is the interests of the people of Syria and the region and the interests of peace, stability and development in the region and throughout the world.”