No Movement on Major Disputes as Clinton Meets With Chinese Leaders

September 5, 2012

BEIJING — The United States and China clashed openly on Wednesday over two of the most contentious issues riling their relationship, the violence in Syria and growing tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

After hours of meetings with other top leaders that began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to narrow the gaps over international crises involving Iran and North Korea and the competition for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. China also rebuffed Mrs. Clinton’s appeals to soften its support for the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Adding to the bumps on what is likely to be Mrs. Clinton’s last visit to China as secretary of state, one of her most important appointments, a session with Vice President Xi Jinping, the likely next leader of China, was canceled.

Most important, the Chinese leadership showed no signs of buckling after months of efforts by Mrs. Clinton and her senior aides to persuade the country to be more flexible on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

“China has sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and the adjacent waters,” the foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, declared flatly during a lengthy appearance with Mrs. Clinton in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. “There is plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence for that.”

When asked about the deepening of American military engagement in Australia and the Philippines, Mr. Yang pointedly added that the United States should reconsider its own strategy in Asia in light of “the trends of our current era and the general wish of countries in the region.”

Mrs. Clinton and her senior aides did not come to Beijing with high expectations of resolving major differences, given China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition beginning this fall. The highly scripted transition has been jolted by a political scandal that led to the downfall of a major party official, Bo Xilai, that revealed some of the maneuvering among the political elite. As Mrs. Clinton was wrapping up her trip, a central figure in the scandal, Wang Lijun, was charged with “bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribetaking,” according to the official Xinhua news agency.

American officials said that Mrs. Clinton was not told of the looming charges against Mr. Wang during her talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, but, they said, the United States had expected that Mr. Wang would be charged at some point amid the churning internal maneuvering ahead of the transition.

At the news conference with Mr. Yang, there was little effort to paper over the two countries’ differences on Syria and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In July, China established a military garrison and a legislative assembly on the tiny Paracel Islands, which Vietnam also claims, exacerbating the tensions there.

Mrs. Clinton, who is in the middle of a 10-day trip through Asia, has repeatedly called on China to discuss with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a code of conduct to address disputes in the region. The Chinese have firmly resisted that idea, with Mr. Yang insisting on direct negotiations with individual countries.

The State Department has said that China would be more likely to get its way by bargaining with individual nations than with the entire regional bloc.

In the last few months, for example, China has effectively blocked the Philippines, an ally of the United States, from gaining access to the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island by China. The Chinese placed a rope across the entrance to the island lagoon and have kept patrol boats in the adjacent waters.

After days of hostile articles in the official Chinese news media about American interference in the region, Mr. Yang said any settlement over the South China Sea disputes should only involve those “directly concerned,” in other words, not the United States.

The foreign minister repeated China’s oft-stated policy that China would assure “the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea.”

On the conflict in Syria, Mrs. Clinton reiterated American criticism of China’s veto, with Russia, of three United Nations Security Council resolutions intended to press Mr. Assad to end the violent crackdown in his country, which has claimed an estimated 20,000 lives and created a rising flood of more than 240,000 refugees, 100,000 in the last month.

“We believe that the situation in Syria is a threat to peace and stability in the entire region,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the risk that it spills over borders and destabilizes neighboring countries.”

The foreign minister, Mr. Yang, countered that China opposed international interference in any other country’s internal affairs, though he expressed support for the peace proposal of the former United Nations envoy, Kofi Annan, which American and most other diplomats consider to be moot at this point. He suggested that China’s policy, not the United States’, would ultimately prove successful. “I think history will judge that China’s position on the Syrian question is a promotion of the appropriate handling and resolution” of the violence there, he said.

The Foreign Ministry said at its regular briefing that the cancellation of Mrs. Clinton’s meeting with Mr. Xi was a “normal adjustment of the itinerary.” Mr. Xi also canceled his scheduled meeting Wednesday with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. “We have reached consensus with the United States and Singapore” on the cancellations, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said.

Diplomats in Beijing said they were told that Mr. Xi had hurt his back and said there was no reason not to believe that explanation, even though there was speculation about whether the cancellation of the meeting with Mrs. Clinton was connected to the once-in-a-decade transition, or whether it was intended as a snub.

Instead of Mr. Xi, Mrs. Clinton met with the vice premier, Li Keqiang, who is expected to become the premier early next year. Earlier Wednesday, she met with President Hu Jintao, whose term ends next year, at the Great Hall of the People. Despite the differences, Mrs. Clinton and her aides appeared satisfied with the Obama administration’s efforts to build greater openness between the two countries by creating regular consultations that allow them to endure disagreements like those on display here. She noted that President Obama and Mr. Hu have met 12 times, while she has visited Beijing five times, joking at one point that she had lost count.