Thursday, March 12, 2009

U.S. tries to play down naval confontation with China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States sought on Wednesday to play down a confrontation between Chinese and U.S. naval vessels as the two sides held high-level talks on reviving growth and reining in North Korea's nuclear program.

Tensions between the two countries rose over a weekend incident in the South China Sea in which five Chinese ships jostled with a U.S. Navy survey vessel off China's southern Hainan island, a major base for Beijing's expanding navy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she raised the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who was to see U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner later in the day and, in a rare gesture, to meet President Barack Obama on Thursday.

"We both agreed that we should work to ensure that such incidents do not happen again in the future," Clinton told reporters after a meeting with Yang. They also discussed human rights, North Korea and the ailing global economy.

Clinton said the there was "a range of options," including action in the U.N. Security Council, that could be pursued against North Korea if it tests a long-range ballistic missile, which she said would be a "provocative" act.

She also repeated the long-standing U.S. request that North Korea return to the negotiating table to discuss a multilateral deal under an aid-for-disarmament deal in which Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear programs.

Grappling with North Korea, which tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, is one of a host of issues on a U.S.-Chinese agenda that also covers reviving global growth and restraining global climate change.

Clinton was harshly criticized by rights groups for her comment in Asia last month that U.S. concerns about human rights in China "can't interfere with" joint work on the economy and other issues.

She sought to rebut the criticism, saying that the United States will always raise human rights with China but that it aimed to do so in a way that produced results.

"Human rights is part of our comprehensive dialogue. It doesn't take a front or a back seat or a middle seat," she told reporters. "It is part of the broad range of issues that we are discussing, but it is important to try to create a platform for actually seeing results from our human rights engagement."

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