Clinton spells out priorities with China

Hillary Clinton enrages activists by suggesting that human rights issues should take a back seat to US-China co-operation on climate change and the global financial crisis.

BEIJING - FEBRUARY 20: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) walks with Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister  Liu Jieyi after her arrival at the airport February 20, 2009 in Beijing, China, Clinton is for a three-day-visit to the Chinese capital, as part of her first diplomatic tour to Asia. (Photo by Greg Baker - Pool/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  GYI0056798712.jpg
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The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton enraged human rights activists as she arrived in Beijing last night on the final stop of her Asia tour by suggesting that human rights issues should take a back seat to US-China co-operation on climate change and the global financial crisis. Leaving the South Korean capital Seoul for Beijing on her inaugural trip abroad as the top American diplomat, Mrs Clinton told reporters that the debate with China over human rights, Taiwan and Tibet could not be allowed to interfere with attempts to reach consensus on other broader issues.

She said it might be better to agree to disagree on their long-standing positions and focus instead on engagement on climate change, the financial crisis and security threats. "I had no idea Clinton's speechwriters had been replaced by [the Chinese government's official news agency] Xinhua," said Sophie Richardson, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "To suggest that these ideas [of human rights] should be put into a box and just left in the corner is unconscionable. It's what gets said on these first visits that really sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.

"I remember a cold day last month when a lot of happy people gathered in Washington because they expected a lot of things they didn't like about the US to change. Was that a dream?" Mrs Clinton's stance is short-sighted because while the Chinese public suffers from a lack of human rights inside the country, there is also a direct impact on the rest of the world, Ms Richardson said. "For example, domestic press censorship is not just problematic because of its implications for freedom of speech but also because you have lead-painted toys showing up in living rooms all over the world as a result," she said. "There are human rights aspects to every single issue the US has going on with China."

As she boarded the plane for the Chinese capital, Mrs Clinton said she would raise human rights issues with her Chinese counterparts but noted that neither side was likely to give ground. Analysts said neither country, struggling to cope with the consequences of financial meltdown, was in a position to make big demands of the other. "The talks will allow both sides to confirm some general principles of operation," said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations and director of the Center for American studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

"Matters such as the global financial crisis are increasing their interdependence and need for co-operation and I expect there to be no change in the relationship from the way it was under George Bush with the exception of a new focus on climate change. "The US wants Chinese money so it cannot afford to confront China over trade issues or other areas of disagreement. For its part, China will emphasise its strong opposition to any protectionist trade measures the US might take. The US, for domestic reasons, will raise human rights and religious freedoms and they will be discussed, but I don't think they will be serious about it and neither side will give them a prominent position."

Mrs Clinton was scheduled for a hectic timetable of meetings with the Chinese leadership today, with North Korea high on the agenda. While in Seoul, Mrs Clinton urged North Korea's leaders to stop being provocative and not to go ahead with a threatened missile launch. China, regarded as North Korea's closest ally, is host of the six-nation talks that also involve the US and are aimed at ending the reclusive Stalinist regime's nuclear ambitions.

However, North Korea is likely to press on with a test-fire of its long-range missiles, Prof Shi said. Officials in South Korea have also been anticipating a short-range missile test near a disputed sea border where navies from the two countries have clashed in the past. "The situation on the Korean peninsula is very serious and neither the US nor China is prepared for it," said Prof Shi.

* With additional reporting by agencies