Image: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Greg Baker  /  AP
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, is guided by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing on Saturday.
updated 2/21/2009 7:18:31 PM ET 2009-02-22T00:18:31

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese officials agreed Saturday to focus their governments' efforts on stabilizing the battered global economy and combating climate change, putting aside long-standing concerns about human rights.

After a morning of talks during her inaugural visit to China as America's top diplomat, Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said a regular U.S.-China dialogue on economic issues would be expanded to include troubling security issues.

"It is essential that the United States and China have a positive, cooperative relationship," Clinton told reporters at a joint news conference with Yang. She said that they also agreed on the need to develop clean energy technology that would use renewable sources and safely store the dirty emissions from burning coal.

With the export-heavy Chinese economy reeling from the U.S. downturn, Clinton sought to reassure China that its massive holdings of U.S. Treasury notes and other government debt would remain a good investment.

"I appreciate greatly the Chinese government's continuing confidence in United States treasuries. I think this is well-grounded confidence," she said. "We have every reason to believe that the United States and China will recover, and together we will help lead the world recovery."

'Facts speak louder than words'
Yang said China wants its foreign exchange reserves — the world's largest at $1.95 trillion — invested safely, with good value and liquidity. He said future decisions on using them would be based on those principles, but added that China wanted to continue work with the U.S.

"I want to emphasize here that the facts speak louder than words. The fact is that China and the United States have conducted good cooperation, and we are ready to continue to talk with the U.S. side," Yang said.

Beijing is the last, and some analysts say, the most important stop on Clinton's weeklong visit to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China. She was to meet China's president and premier as well as tour a geothermal power plant before leaving Sunday.

Along with cooperating on the financial crisis and climate change, the United States wants China to step up efforts to address threats like Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs and tenuous security situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In addition, Clinton said the U.S. would like to see China play a positive role in Myanmar and Sudan, two countries which receive large Chinese investments but whose governments are at odds with Washington.

The emphasis on the global economy, climate change and security highlight the growing importance of U.S.-China relations, which have often soured over disagreements on human rights.

But ahead of the talks, Clinton signaled that China's poor human rights record , while still of deep concern to the United States, would not be at the top of her agenda.

She noted that both sides already knew the other's positions on the matter and said that human rights concerns "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises."

Criticism
Her comments drew immediate fire from rights groups who said they sent the wrong message, undermined efforts to promote basic freedoms in China and squandered Washington's leverage with Beijing.

Asked to respond to the criticism, Clinton said "the promotion of human rights is an essential aspect of our global foreign policy," noting in particular the issues of Tibet, religious freedom and freedom of expression.

"Human rights are part of our comprehensive agenda," she said.

But she added that the work of civic groups and private advocates that she has highlighted is "at least as important in building respect for and making progress on human rights" as government-to-government contact.

Yang appeared pleased by Clinton's reply, saying China was happy to engage on human rights with the United States but only "on the basis of equality and noninterference in each other's internal affairs."

Authorities in Beijing are facing a difficult year on the rights front as they try 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.

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