BEIJING – Talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese leaders Wednesday failed to narrow gaps on how to end the crisis in Syria and how to resolve Beijing's territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea.
Clinton, who met President Hu Jintao, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and other top officials but not leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, wants China to stop backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and has been pushing for it to be more flexible in lowering tensions over the potentially oil-rich South China Seas.
But comments from Clinton and Yang showed that the countries remain deeply divided on those issues, although both maintained they are committed to working together despite their differences.
The United States and other countries are upset that China and Russia have repeatedly used their veto powers in the U.N. Security Council to block actions that could have led to sanctions against Assad's regime. China says Syria's civil war needs to be resolved through negotiations and not outside pressure.
"I think history will judge that China's position on the Syria question is a promotion of the appropriate handling of the situation," Yang told a news conference with Clinton. "For what we have in mind 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."
The comment was a direct rebuke to Clinton, who has said previously that vetoes by China and Russia of U.N. Security Council sanctions on the Assad regime have put them "on the wrong side of history."
She responded bluntly to Yang by saying the violence was boiling over into other countries like Jordan and Turkey and that the Security Council had to act.
"It is no secret that we have been disappointed by Russia and China's actions blocking tougher U.N. Security Council resolutions and we hope to continue to unite behind a real path forward to end the violence in Syria," she said.
Clinton had been scheduled to meet Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as China's top leader later this year, but that was canceled by the Chinese for "unexpected scheduling reasons," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. A meeting between Xi and the visiting prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, also was canceled without explanation.
Yang would say only there should not be "unnecessary speculation" about changes to Clinton's schedule.
Before meeting Hu, Clinton said the U.S.-China relationship is strong even though there are disagreements over issues like Syria, the South China Sea and human rights. "We are 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," she said.
Clinton had arrived in China from Indonesia, where she urged Southeast Asian nations to present a unified front in dealing with Beijing in attempts to ease rising tensions in the South China Sea. China and a host of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, have overlapping claims to several small but potentially energy-rich areas of sea, reefs and islands.
The U.S. wants China and the other claimants to adopt a binding code of conduct for the region, along with a process to resolve maritime disputes without coercion, intimidation or the use of force.
Clinton wants the Chinese to drop their insistence on settling conflicting claims with individual nations and instead embrace a multilateral mechanism that will give the smaller members of the Association of South East Asian Nations greater clout in negotiations. She said she wanted all sides to make meaningful progress by a November summit of East Asian leaders that President Barack Obama plans to attend in Cambodia.
"We believe ... that it is timely now to proceed with that work and help to lower the tensions and create the code of conduct in the next period, hopefully in preparation for the East Asia Summit," she said.
Yang, however, repeated China's statements that it is ready to discuss the sea disputes only through bilateral talks in which many believe that China would have an unfair upper hand. And, he was cool to the idea of reaching an agreement before November, saying that China and some of its friends in ASEAN wanted to work only toward the "eventual adoption of a code of conduct."
"China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters. There is plenty of historical and jurisprudence evidence of that," he said.
Yang also rejected that there was any threat to international maritime commerce from the rising tensions over the disputes, something Washington has cited for the reason that peaceful settlements of the claims are a U.S. national security interest.
"The freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is assured," he said. "There is no issue currently in this area nor will there ever be issues in that area in the future."
Clinton and her comments on the South China Sea have been strongly criticized in the official Chinese media over the last two days. Hu gave what may have been another sign of Beijing's unhappiness with Clinton at the beginning of their talks by praising her only for implementing a student exchange initiative and for "actively" pushing for the construction of the U.S. pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo two years ago.
Clinton said she also urged China to use "its unique influence" to help bring change to its impoverished and isolated neighbor North Korea, where Kim Jong Un became leader when his father died late last year.
"There is an opportunity for the new leadership of North Korea to improve the lives of the people of North Korea," Clinton said.
Clinton is in China at the midpoint of an 11-day, six-nation tour of the Asia-Pacific region that started in the Cook Islands. After she leaves China, she will visit East Timor and Brunei before heading to Russia's Far East to represent the United States at the annual meeting of leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok.