WASHINGTON -- As the United States opened two days of talks with China Monday, Vice President Joe Biden lauded the growing political ties between the world's two largest economies but emphasized that the Obama administration remains deeply concerned about continuing human rights violations in China.
"We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights," Biden said as the third annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue got underway. "We have to be honest with each other," he added, noting the recent arrests and disappearances of Chinese journalists, human rights lawyers, bloggers, writers and artists.
Biden allowed that many Chinese people consider America's preoccupation with human rights in their country to be an "intrusion" into internal matters that "rankles" the country's leaders. Yet, he insisted, "no relationship that’s real can be built on a false foundation."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke out about the "candid discussions" she and other U.S. officials intend to have over the next two days about human rights, as Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo looked on silently from the stage of the Interior Department auditorium.
As the officials spoke, about two dozen protesters chanted "Shame on China!" and held signs outside the building that read "China -- Stop Military Crackdown in Ngaba, Tibet!"
"We know over the long arc of history that societies that work toward respecting human rights are going to be more prosperous, stable and successful," Clinton said. "That has certainly been proven time and time again, but most particularly in the last months" as calls for more freedom and democracy have erupted across the Middle East.
Dai downplayed any friction, recalling that this year marks the 40th anniversary of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," and the start of improved U.S.-China relations, which had been severed for more than 20 years after the Communist takeover of China.
"I welcome more American friends to visit China to see and feel for yourselves the friendship of the Chinese people and the importance of China-U.S. relations," he said through an interpreter. "You may learn firsthand the enormous progress China has made on various fronts, including human rights."
But Jeffrey Bader, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, said nervousness over the Arab Spring uprisings and fears of similar upheavals at home have spurred recent crackdowns.
Despite recent discussions in which U.S. officials "took a thoughtful approach of stressing issues of concern to Chinese people and groups, mitigating the risks of appearing to be imposing U.S. customs and norms on a suspicious China," Bader expects few concrete results to emerge from this week's summit.
"History encourages modest expectations about the fruits of U.S.-China dialogue on human rights," he wrote. "The Chinese see this as an issue to be dealt with domestically and managed internationally, not as one where they need to accommodate foreign complaints."
This week's talks are the result of an agreement in 2009 between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao. More than a dozen U.S. agency heads will meet with their Chinese counterparts, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
The summit also features the first high-level military-to-military talks between the two countries, with China sending two top generals as well as non-uniformed military leaders to engage with their counterparts at the Pentagon.
Obama is scheduled to meet with leaders of the Chinese delegation later Monday, when he is expected to raise the subject of human rights and particular cases of activists being arrested or disappearing.
But Douglas Paal, who directed Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush and is now Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expects Chinese officials will want to talk about other things.
"The Chinese will say we just discussed that, let’s move on," he said.