Clinton's China Trip Raises Hopes And Fears In Beijing

03/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BEIJING, Feb 17 (IPS) - United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's upcoming maiden trip to China this week has raised both expectations and apprehensions in Beijing.

Clinton's pledge to broaden the U.S. administration's once economy-fixated approach to China to include delicate issues like human rights and climate change has rekindled hopes among activists and environmentalists, but caused misgivings among political observers.

In her first major speech as secretary of state, Clinton devoted much breath to the significance of stable U.S.-China relations.

"Some believe that China on the rise is by definition an adversary," she said at the Asia Society in New York on the eve of her four-nation regional tour. "To the contrary, we believe the U.S. and China benefit from, and contribute to, each other's successes.''

Her approach to dealing with China by combining key economic concerns with security, environmental and rights issues was emphasised as soon as she landed in Tokyo, Monday, on the first leg of her Asia tour.

"We have a very broad agenda to deal with when it comes to China," Clinton said. "This trip will be intended to find a path forward."

Proof of it came almost immediately with the announcement of the resumption of military dialogue between China and the U.S. The English-language 'China Daily' newspaper, citing a spokesman for China's ministry of national defence, said military talks will resume in Beijing later this month, on the heels of Clinton's visit here Feb. 20-22.

China suspended these contacts last fall after the administration of former president George Bush decided to sell 6.5 billion US dollars worth of arms to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.

"The Obama administration has set a positive tone to work with the mainland," the paper quoted rear admiral Yang Yi, top military expert with the University of National Defence, as saying.

In other areas though, tensions are likely to surface.

While the Bush administration was muted in its public criticism of human rights abuses in China, Clinton raised hackles promising to speak about human rights issues when she takes part in a town hall meeting in Beijing. In her speech in New York she did not baulk at pointing out that Tibetans had a right to practice their religion without persecution.

The prospect of Chinese leaders being lectured on their country's human rights record publicly evokes uncomfortable memories of Clinton's visit to China in 1995 when she attended the fourth World Conference on Women.

In her role as the U.S. first lady, Clinton had caused a stir by delivering a powerful speech on the universal value of human rights and criticised China for refusing to face up to human abuses on its own soil.

"Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organise, and debate openly," Clinton admonished her Chinese hosts in 1995. "It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions."

Beijing hosts blacked out her speech out on official radio and television then but a repeat of her criticism now - when virtually everything is available on the Internet - can have great public resonance.

Some Chinese experts believe Clinton's pledge to make U.S.-China dialogue all-round to include a wide range of rights issues is premature.

"Neither China, nor the U.S. for that matter, is ready to begin such broad talks," says Sun Zhe, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "There is a lot of rhetoric on the part of the Democratic Party about human rights, women rights and labour rights but not a single real confrontation."

"China is not opposed to a comprehensive dialogue," says Chu Shulong, a professor of political science at the same university, pointing that the two countries have a specific bilateral framework for dialogue on human rights and have been discussing the issue for years.

"But throwing human rights and climate change in the same pot as economy and security would not help achieve much because the two sides have serious disagreements,'' Chu said.

But many observers have expressed excitement at the new climate in bilateral ties.

Zhang Guoqing, a U.S. expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that Obama administration's determination to part with Bush's unilateralism and demand more strategic responsibilities from its allies and partners represent a chance for China.

"As much as this is a listening trip aimed at understanding opinions in Asia, it would be also an opportunity for the U.S. to demand share more," he wrote in the 'Beijing Youth Daily.'

Green groups have been particularly encouraged by talk that climate change will figure high on Clinton's agenda in Beijing. During her visit, Clinton is scheduled to visit an energy-efficient power plant near the capital built by General Electric in cooperation with a Chinese partner.

President Barack Obama has outlined the development of non-polluting energy technologies as one of the main tools for reviving U.S. economy. China, for its part, hopes to receive cash and technology from developing countries in return for committing to any limit on its emissions.

"Hillary Clinton's trip to China is a milestone in launching U.S.-China dialogue on climate change," says Li Yan, Green Peace China climate and energy campaigner. "The whole world is waiting for China and the U.S. to show leadership in mapping the road beyond the Kyoto treaty."

Some 190 countries are racing against time to craft out an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol in time for a U.N. conference on climate change scheduled to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

Read more from Inter Press Service.

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