BEIJING – U.S. outrage over Beijing's veto of a U.N. Syria resolution won't affect cooperation on other international issues, a top Chinese diplomat said Thursday, as Beijing announced it had recently hosted a leading Syrian opposition figure.
Last week's double veto by China and Russia of the resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for ending the Syrian bloodshed deeply angered the U.S., Europe and the Arab League.
However, in a sign Beijing is staying engaged, the Foreign Ministry said China earlier this month hosted a four-day visit by Haytham Manna, a Paris-based dissident who heads the external branch of a group called the National Committee for Democratic Change.
Manna met with a vice foreign minister to enable China to better understand the situation in Syria and maintain contacts and communication with the opposition, ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters.
Manna's committee is one of Syria's two largest opposition groups and signed an agreement with the rival Syrian National Council late last year on setting up a democracy if President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime falls.
Beijing's move is similar to that which it took for Libya last year before the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. After months of criticizing foreign intervention and ignoring the rebels, China began meeting with anti-Gadhafi leaders, although it was still the last major nation to recognize the opposition.
China has been defending itself from bitter criticism over the U.N. vote, which marred Beijing's attempts to portray itself as a positive force for resolving global crises.
China explained its vote by saying the vote was called before differences had been bridged and said it respected the norms of international relations. Russia and China, wary after watching the West help Libyan militia oust Gadhafi, reject any talk of military intervention or changing Syrian leadership.
In a briefing for reporters, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai reiterated China's opposition to any measure that could encourage intervention by force or regime change, but sought to minimize the impact on China's global standing.
While it was natural for the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to disagree, such differences do not rule out future cooperation on Syria or other issues such as Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, he said.
"I do believe we can still cooperate because both of us want to see regional peace and stability, both of us call for a solution to this issue through dialogue," Cui said. "So I think there is still scope for cooperation between China and the United States and between other members of the Security Council on this issue."
Cui also said next week's visit to the U.S. by Vice President Xi Jinping -- widely expected to be China's next leader -- offers a chance to reduce a "trust deficit" that vividly contrasts with booming economic, cultural and educational ties between the countries.
"Both sides, China and the United States, have come to realize the need for redoubled efforts to solve this issue and Vice President Xi's visit this time will provide a very important opportunity to further enhance our mutual trust," Cui told reporters at a briefing.
Xi's visit is largely seen as protocol to give him greater U.S. exposure before he takes leadership of the ruling Communist Party in the autumn and the presidency next year. He is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with ranking members of Congress and retired political figures.
Among the issues expected to be discussed are legal controversies surrounding American citizens involved in business disputes in China.
Cui said those were being handled by the justice system and seemed to rule out any moves to intervene for the sake of U.S. ties.
"Such individual cases will not affect the visit of Vice President Xi and should not be an irritant to our relationship," Cui said.