Secretary of state in China to push climate, finance

BEIJING -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was pressing senior Chinese officials today to cooperate on climate change, the world financial crisis and security threats like North Korea -- ahead of long-standing concerns about human rights.

Clinton began talks with China's foreign minister, emphasizing the need to collaborate on global issues. She was to see its prime minister and president and tour a geothermal energy plant in Beijing on the last stop of her inaugural overseas trip.

"We believe we have established a solid foundation, but there is much work to be done and it is in our view imperative that the United States and China cooperate on a range of issues," Clinton told Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

The two countries are facing "a series of major and pressing" challenges in the 21st century, Yang said: "The larger situation requires our two countries to strengthen dialogue ... and work together to elevate our relationship to a new level."

Ahead of her talks, she told reporters that China could play a major role in stemming global warming, improving the economic outlook and addressing threats like North Korea's nuclear program and tenuous security situations in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And she signaled that those issues would likely take precedence in her discussions ahead of traditional U.S. concerns about human rights about which Clinton said both sides already knew the other's positions. Her stance drew immediate fire from rights groups who said she was squandering Washington's leverage with Beijing.

"I think there is a lot of room for cooperation, which we will be seeking," she told reporters just before arriving in China, referring to the financial situation.

Clinton stressed the importance of dealing with climate change with China, which has overtaken the United States as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, as well as with the nations she visited earlier on her tour of Asia. Advocacy groups and think tanks have urged the U.S. and China to jointly develop technologies to cleanly use and store the emissions from burning coal, a major source of energy for both countries.

"So many of the opportunities for clean energy, technology and the like are going to come out of this region of the world," Clinton said. "Japan, South Korea and China are uniquely situated to be part of the answer to the problem of global climate change."

"How we engage them, particularly China, is going to be an incredibly important part of our diplomatic outreach," Clinton said.

On security and counterterrorism, she said she would be looking for Beijing to take a more active role in convincing North Korea to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks and cool rising tensions between Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo.

"What will China be willing to do with respect to the six-party talks and their bilateral relationship with North Korea?" Clinton said. "What's their perspective on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they have historical interests but also current commercial and security interests?"

Clinton signaled a shift in tone Friday, saying that persisting disagreements with China over human rights, Taiwan and Tibet should not interfere with cooperation on broader issues.

"We have to continue to press them" on Taiwan, Tibet and human rights, she said. "But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."

Her remarks, likely to be cheered in Beijing, come ahead of a difficult year for the authoritarian government, as it seeks to muffle dissent ahead of politically sensitive anniversaries -- 20 years since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and 50 since the failed Tibetan uprising that forced the Dalai Lama to flee into exile. Beijing has already tightened security in Tibetan areas across western China, which erupted in anti-Chinese government protests last March.

Before Clinton's arrival in Beijing, the ruling Communist Party's newspaper People's Daily praised her and the Obama administration for "their profound understanding of the importance of U.S.-China relations."

But human rights groups denounced the remarks. They had hoped for a repeat of the stance she took nearly 15 years ago when she was first lady and publicly took on and angered the Chinese government in a tough speech in Beijing on the rights issue.

"The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues," Amnesty International said in a statement. "By commenting that human rights will not interfere with other priorities, Secretary Clinton damages future U.S. initiatives to protect those rights in China."

Human Rights Watch said Clinton had "made a strategic mistake in appearing to concede that she expects no meeting of the minds on human rights issues."