- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

The United States and China agreed Wednesday on the need to reduce tensions and avoid a repeat of a confrontation between American and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

“We both agreed that we should work to ensure that such incidents do not happen again,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters after meeting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the State Department.

“We have each stated our positions, but the important point of agreement coming out of my discussions with Minister Yang is that we must work hard in the future to avoid such incidents and to avoid this particular incident having consequences that are unforeseen,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton told reporters that Mr. Yang’s visit was a “very positive” development and that she looked forward to continuing discussions that she started with him during a trip to Beijing last month to build a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship.”

Before their private meeting, neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Yang mentioned the dispute, even as China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing responded for a second consecutive day to U.S. complaints that Chinese vessels harassed a U.S. Navy surveillance ship in international waters on Sunday.



Mr. Yang plans to meet Thursday with President Obama and his national security adviser, James Jones. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expects the dispute will be discussed but will not dominate the conversation.

At the Pentagon, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said the U.S. hopes that “face-to-face dialogue in Beijing and in Washington will go a long way to clearing up any misunderstanding about this incident.”

Even if diplomatic efforts by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Yang are successful in toning down the dispute, it may be only a temporary lull in a larger military disagreement.

Beijing has long complained about U.S. surveillance operations around China’s borders. Without better communications between the two militaries as they operate in the South China Sea, the possibility for conflict will remain.

National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair, a retired admiral, told lawmakers Tuesday that the incident was the most serious episode between the two nations since 2001, when China forced the landing of a U.S. spy plane and seized the crew.

The tension arose as the Obama administration tries to get Chinese help on a host of foreign policy matters, including efforts to confront Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan and help ease the worldwide economic crisis.

Mr. Yang said earlier that the primary point of his visit was to prepare for a meeting between Mr. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, which will take place in early April in London on the sidelines of a summit on the global financial downturn.

In her comments, Mrs. Clinton rejected criticism from some lawmakers and human rights groups that the administration has downgraded the advocacy of human rights in its foreign policy. She noted she had raised such matters, including the situation in Tibet, with Mr. Yang.

“Human rights is part of our comprehensive dialogue” with China, she said. “It doesn’t take a front seat, a back seat or a middle seat. It is part of the broad range of issues that we are discussing.”

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