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US, China clash on rights deepens as talks wrap up

/ 06:22 AM May 11, 2011

WASHINGTON—The United States and China on Tuesday sharpened the tone in their disagreements over human rights as top-level talks looked set to yield only general promises of cooperation.

The world’s two largest economies were wrapping up two days of wide-ranging meetings, with the United States pressing China to let its currency appreciate further and Beijing seeking an easing of US controls on sensitive exports.

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But human rights concerns took center-stage in the annual dialogue which comes as China carries out its biggest crackdown in years. Authorities have rounded up dozens of lawyers, writers, artists and other perceived critics.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in some of the sharpest US criticism yet, said that China was wrong if it thought it could hold off change in the wake of the pro-democracy protests sweeping the Arab world.

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“They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand,” Clinton said of Chinese officials in an interview with The Atlantic magazine.

Clinton nonetheless defended the US policy of seeking cooperation with China on a range of global issues, saying: “We live in a real world.”

“We don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human rights record. We don’t walk away from dealing with Saudi Arabia,” she said.

US officials said Clinton and President Barack Obama, who met the Chinese delegation at the White House on Monday, both raised human rights concerns behind closed doors.

Vice Premier Wang Qishan, one of two Chinese officials leading the talks, said in a rare foreign television interview that Americans had a limited understanding of China as they looked first to Europe.

“It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the Oriental culture,” Wang told “The Charlie Rose Show” on US public television late Monday.

“The United States is the world’s number one superpower, and the American people, they’re very simple people,” he added.

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But striking a more conciliatory tone, Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun told reporters Tuesday that China was committed to human rights and had made “remarkable progress” since the communist state was established in 1949.

“No country including the United States is perfect on the human rights issue. It is only natural for China and the United States to see human rights differently in some aspects,” Zhang said.

“So we call for a dialogue and consultation on the basis of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,” he said.

Long-running US economic concerns with China also came back into focus on Tuesday as official data showed that China’s trade surplus ballooned to $11.4 billion in April and exports hit a record monthly high.

The trade surplus has been a long source of tension between China and the United States, which accuses Beijing of artificially undervaluing its yuan to fuel a flood of inexpensive manufactured goods for export.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that the yuan’s value remained a top concern for the United States, but recognized that it has risen against the dollar as China tries to tame inflationary pressure.

Wang rejected allegations of currency manipulation, saying that the yuan’s value had nothing to do with China’s trade boom.

“My biggest worry is that economic relations between China and the United States become politicized,” Wang said.

Despite the disagreements, US and Chinese officials say they have made progress in a number of areas to ensure that disagreements do not turn into full-fledged crises.

Military officers are taking part in the annual talks for the first time. China last year snapped defense ties for months after the United States approved a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan, which Beijing claims.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the military officers’ involvement allowed the Pacific powers to speak frankly about sensitive security issues.

“We hope we can break down misunderstandings and misperceptions that could potentially lead to some sort of miscalculation,” he said.

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TAGS: Diplomacy, Economy, Foreign affairs, Foreign trade, Human rights
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