The urgent notice from the U.S. embassy in Beijing arrived in e-mail inboxes at 10:26 on Wednesday morning. The press conference with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been moved up suddenly to 10:30. That would be in four minutes’ time. Could members of the foreign press please proceed quickly to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square? The reason for the last-minute change of schedule appeared to be a no-show by the man widely expected to take over from President Hu Jintao in China’s upcoming once-a-decade leadership transition. Clinton’s scheduled talk this morning with Vice President Xi Jinping had been called off by the Chinese side, paving the way for an earlier press conference with the Chinese Foreign Minister.
In the Sept. 5 media briefing, Clinton sidestepped a question about whether Xi’s cancellation might reflect tensions between the world’s two biggest economies at a time when competing territorial claims in waters off China have marred the People’s Republic’s relations with its maritime neighbors. In the prelude to Clinton’s visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and official state media blasted American efforts to involve itself in any way in these territorial disputes, which involve specks of land located in potentially resource-rich waters in the South and East China seas.
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At a briefing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei warned: “Countries outside the South China Sea should respect the choice of the relevant parties, hold an impartial position on the issue and make more efforts in favor of regional peace and stability instead of bringing harmful effects.” Xinhua, the state-run news agency, was even more blunt, charging that the U.S. was a “sneaky troublemaker,” while the patriotic Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, deemed that “many Chinese dislike” the U.S. Secretary of State.
On Wednesday, both Yang and Clinton declined to use such combative language or underline just how divergent China’s and the U.S.’s positions are on a host of foreign policy issues, ranging from the maritime disputes among Asian nations and the deteriorating human-rights situation in Syria to the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Clinton reiterated that China and the U.S. “literally consult with each other almost on a daily basis about every consequential issue facing our nations and the world today.”
Yet despite the platitudes about “mutual trust and cooperation” and “common partnership,” the geopolitical friction points between the two countries are hard to ignore. Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an American “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, which many analysts have interpreted as a not-so-subtle attempt to contain an expanding China. In her remarks in Beijing on Sept. 5, Clinton addressed the issue of shifting geopolitics directly: “Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”
Clinton said on Wednesday that the U.S. wanted China “to play a greater role in global affairs” but also admitted it was “no secret” that the U.S. was displeased with China and Russia’s blocking of attempts by the U.N. to more forcefully criticize the Syrian regime and possibly impose sanctions on the government of President Bashar Assad. Yang countered that “we also believe that any solution should come from the people of Syria and reflect their wishes. It should not be imposed from outside.” However, the Chinese Foreign Minister did say, with rather surprising vigor, that “we support a period of political transition in Syria.”
Perhaps the biggest point of tension shaping Clinton’s two-day visit has been the South China Sea issue on which neither Clinton nor Yang gave ground during their official remarks. The U.S. is pushing for talks on the waterway, nearly all of which China claims as its own, to be conducted through a multilateral forum that includes Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Beijing says it will only engage in bilateral communication with the countries with which it is embroiled in territorial disputes — a strategy that could stunt the influence of smaller nations like Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. An attempt at an ASEAN meeting earlier this year to release a bland statement on the importance of peace in the South China Sea was scrapped after Beijing appeared to lean on host Cambodia, which counts China as its No. 1 foreign investor, to refuse support for such a multilateral document.
This was Clinton’s fifth (and likely final) visit to China as Secretary of State; she is in the middle of a six-nation swing through the Asia-Pacific. The South China Sea issue notwithstanding, this Beijing trip is markedly less fraught than her last time in China. Back in May, Clinton was in town for long-planned economic and strategic talks but became embroiled in an unfolding crisis at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where blind legal advocate Chen Guangcheng had fled after escaping house arrest in China’s eastern Shandong province for publicizing a forced-abortion and sterilization campaign. After delicate negotiations between Beijing and Washington, Chen and his immediate family were allowed to depart for the U.S., where he is now studying law in New York. Despite public statements by all sides that Chen will return home after his studies, a life of exile may well await him.
Despite the Xi cancellation, Clinton met with President Hu and other top Chinese leaders in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the American side, Xi’s scheduled meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday was also scrapped. One version of events ascribes the Chinese Vice President’s absence to an injured back. “The current schedule of the secretary’s visit has been agreed by both sides,” said Yang, presumably referring to Xi’s cancellation. “I hope people won’t have unnecessary speculation.” China’s chattering classes are atwitter over how the upcoming leadership transition will play out in the coming weeks, as the first of the high-level staffing changes within the government trickle out of the capital. In a country where analysts often must seize on the briefest of shadow plays in order to guess what’s really going on behind the bamboo curtain, it’s only natural that Xi’s no-show set off the rumor mill.
On Wednesday evening, as Clinton dined with Chinese state councilor and top diplomat Dai Bingguo, China announced that it had charged Wang Lijun—a former police chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing, whose overnight stay at a nearby U.S. consulate in February sparked China’s worst political scandal in decades—had been charged with defection, among other serious allegations. Wang’s chat with the Americans set off a series of events that eventually resulted in the purge of top official Bo Xilai, as well as a suspended death sentence for Bo’s wife in the murder of a British business consultant last year. China’s political hierarchy is still dealing with the fallout of this shocking case. Perhaps China’s presumptive heir to the presidency really did have an aching back on Wednesday. But convincing China pundits of that may be tough.