HONOLULU (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied on Thursday the United States was seeking to contain China as she began a two-week trip to an Asia-Pacific region rattled by recent Chinese assertiveness.
Washington and Beijing have clashed this year over issues including the value of China’s currency, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and U.S. President Barack Obama’s February meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
China’s relations with its neighbors have also been strained by territorial disputes — notably with Japan — but also with Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims over the South China Sea.
The top U.S. diplomat, starting a trip to seven Asia-Pacific nations including China, sought to strike a balance between the U.S. desire to work with Beijing and its concerns about some Chinese policies.
“The relationship between China and the United States is complex and of enormous consequence and we are committed to getting it right,” Clinton said in a speech on U.S. Asia-Pacific policy delivered in Honolulu.
“There are some in both countries who believe that China’s interests and ours are fundamentally at odds. They apply a zero-sum calculation ... so whenever one of us succeeds, the other must fail,” she said. “But that is not our view.”
While saying the two nations work together on many issues, Clinton also alluded to their many differences, including U.S. desires to see the Chinese currency appreciate as well as U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.
“There are also many in China who still believe that the U.S. is bent on containing China and I would simply point out that since the beginning of our diplomatic relations, China has experienced breathtaking growth and development,” she said.
“This is due, of course, to the hard work of the Chinese people. But U.S. policy has consistently — through Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses — supported this goal since the 1970s,” she said.
Clinton’s trip began on Wednesday with a stop in Hawaii to meet Japan’s foreign minister. On Friday, she is in Vietnam for the East Asia summit and then heads to Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia.
While China was not originally on her itinerary, the State Department added a last-minute detour to China’s Hainan Island on Saturday so Clinton could meet Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a key figure in managing the strained U.S.-China relationship who will not attend the summit in Hanoi.
Sino-Japanese relations have been on edge since last month after Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near the disputed islands — called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Reports that China had curtailed exports of so-called rare earth minerals, vital for the production of high-tech goods, to Japan following the dispute have rattled policy-makers and markets fearing a scarcity of the commodities.
Clinton’s speech made no reference to that dispute, but she made clear the U.S. view that China and its neighbors should work cooperatively to resolve their territorial disputes.
“Military buildups matched with ongoing territorial disputes create anxieties that reverberate,” she said, adding, “We are encouraged by China’s recent steps to enter discussions with ASEAN about a more formal, binding code of conduct” over the South China Sea.
In Hanoi in July, Clinton signaled new U.S. engagement in the South China Sea issue, emphasizing that Washington believed territorial disputes in the region had global implications because of its role as a trade and shipping crossroads and potentially rich source of natural resources.
Built around this week’s East Asia Summit in Hanoi, Clinton’s trip is designed to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the region as the United States, and other nations in the region, grapple with China’s economic and military rise.
“There are some who say that this long legacy of American leadership in Asia Pacific is coming to a close — that we are not here to stay. I say look at our record. It tells a very different story,” Clinton said. “We are focused on a distant time horizon — one that stretches out for decades to come.”
Editing by Peter Cooney