BEIJING — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sat down Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao to press Beijing to agree to peacefully resolve territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors over the South China Sea. But as she began her meetings here, China questioned the stated neutrality of the United States.
At the start of the talks with Hu, Clinton said the U.S.-China relationship is strong. "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.
There was no immediate comment on the talks, but a scheduled meeting with Vice President Xi Jinping for later Wednesday morning had been canceled by China "for unexpected scheduling reasons," said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Xi, who takes over as China's top leader later this year, also had a meeting canceled with the visiting prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong. No reasons for the cancellations have been given.
Clinton met late Tuesday with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi after arriving in China from Indonesia, where she urged Southeast Asian nations to present a unified front in dealing with China in attempts to ease rising tensions in the South China Sea.
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 urged all parties to make "meaningful progress" by a November summit of East Asian leaders that President Barack Obama plans to attend in Cambodia.
In Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, Clinton offered strong U.S. support for a regionally endorsed plan to ease rising tensions by implementing the code of conduct. Jakarta is the headquarters of ASEAN, and Clinton pressed the group to insist that China agree to deal with them as a bloc.
The stance puts the U.S. squarely at odds with China, which has become more aggressive in pressing its territorial claims with its smaller neighbors and wants the disputes to be resolved with each country, giving it greater leverage.
Clinton made her case in Jakarta on Tuesday in meetings with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan. Indonesia has played a leading role in putting the six-point plan together after ASEAN was unable to reach consensus on the matter in July.
Clinton said the U.S. is "encouraged" by the plan but wants it acted on – particularly implementation and enforcement of the code of conduct, which has languished since a preliminary framework for it was first agreed upon in 2002.
"The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims ... but we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation and certainly without the use of force," Clinton told reporters at a news conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
Yet China on Tuesday expressed skepticism that the U.S. is neutral in the disputes.
"The U.S. has many times said it does not take a position," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday. "I hope they will keep their promise and do more to help stability and not the opposite. The South China Sea dispute is a complicated thing. To China, the South China Sea dispute is about the sovereignty of some of the islands there. China, like other countries in the world, has the obligation to safeguard its territories."
For the second day in a row Clinton was criticized Wednesday in editorials in Chinese newspapers. The Global Times said the United States was behind the disputes in the South China Sea and accused Clinton of seeking "unilateral compromise by China."
It said "China should not let the U.S. have any doubt or other misjudgments regarding its determination."
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 the South China Sea.
In July, China angered the United States, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, by creating a city and military garrison on a remote island 220 miles (350 kilometers) from its southernmost province intended to administer hundreds of thousands of square miles of water where China wants to strengthen its control over disputed islands. China, which also has disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, rejected the criticism.
In addition to the South China Sea, Clinton will be discussing the situation in Syria as well as the efforts to deal with Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs while she is in the Chinese capital.
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 and Indonesia. 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 Vladivostock.