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Hillary Clinton to table human rights issues in China talks

The secretary of State will focus on the economy, climate change and other topics more likely to lead to progress as she wraps up her weeklong trip to Asia.

February 21, 2009|Paul Richter

BEIJING — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that she would not emphasize contentious issues such as human rights in talks this weekend with the Chinese, focusing instead on topics on which progress may be more likely: the global economy, climate change and security issues.

Clinton's weeklong tour of Asia culminates with meetings in China, where she is remembered for a tough 1995 speech on human rights. But she said that after years of pressing Beijing, the dialogue on human rights, freedom for Tibet and accommodation with Taiwan had grown predictable.

"We know what they're going to say because I've had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders," Clinton told reporters.

"We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on these issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

Clinton wants a broader dialogue with China as an important feature of her tenure. But she faces challenges on the difficult questions of rights, which are followed with intense interest by important constituencies, some tied to her Democratic Party base.

Her comments upset rights groups who see freedom of the press and of speech as closely connected to economic, environmental and security issues.

"Secretary Clinton's remarks point to a diplomatic strategy that has worked well for the Chinese government -- segregating human rights issues into a dead-end 'dialogue of the deaf,' " said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "A new approach is needed."

T. Kumar, of Amnesty International USA, said, "It's not too late for Secretary Clinton to do the right thing for the Chinese people. Amnesty International urges Secretary Clinton to repair the damage caused by her statement and publicly declare that human rights are central to U.S.-China relations before she leaves Beijing."

Clinton said she planned to visit a state-sanctioned church Sunday morning but did not wish to draw heightened attention to the stop.

"My intention was just to go to church," she said.

She plans also to talk to some Chinese who are not connected to the government. Rights issues may come up in those conversations, but aides said she planned no special meetings with activists.

Chinese officials have said they welcome a broadened dialogue with the United States, but it is unclear how enthusiastic they are about those conversations. In wide-ranging talks with U.S. officials, economic issues have dominated.

Clinton traveled to China after a one-day visit to South Korea, which ended with a strong statement of support for the South Korean government and stern words for North Korea.

In an appearance with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, Clinton said North Korea "is not going to get a different relationship with the United States while insulting and refusing dialogue with" South Korea.

She referred to North Korea as a "tyranny" and, later in the day, as the "hermit kingdom," referring to its secretive nature.

South Korea's government has been worried that the Obama administration's declared interest in talking to adversaries might weaken the traditionally strong U.S. relationship with Seoul. American officials have been eager to dispel that fear and to make it clear that they can be tough when required.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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