U.S., China open talks amid criticism of rights, economic policies

U.S. officials pressed China to open its economy more fully and criticized recent political arrests as the nations began two days of talks in Washington on economic, military and other issues.

The latest annual Strategic & Economic Dialogue marks the first time senior Chinese military officials have participated in the high-level meetings, a sign of how the bilateral discussions have become a staple of the diplomacy between the two nations.

But the session opened with criticism by top U.S. officials of recent arrests of Chinese activists and artists that came in the wake of the spreading pro-democracy movement in the Middle East.

“We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights,” Vice President Biden said at the opening of the meeting. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: ”We have made very clear, publicly and privately, our concern about human rights.”

A senior administration official later said the discussions on human rights were “very candid and honest.”

But the two sides emphasized the positive tone of the meetings overall, including the presence of the Chinese military officials. The U.S. government has been frustrated in the past with its inability to get China’s military to discuss some strategic issues such as nuclear weapons. The two sides also planned to discuss foreign-policy issues such as Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in nuclear-armed North Korea.

“We continue to urge North Korea to take concrete actions to improve relations with South Korea and to refrain from further provocations, and we want to see North Korea take irreversible steps to fulfill its international obligations toward denuclearization,” Clinton said.

President Obama spoke by telephone Monday with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. While a White House statement said the two discussed issues of bilateral and international concern, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, the call may have been linked to the China event. The administration is trying to expand relations with both China and India, but the two Asian powers often see one’s gain as another’s loss. The timing of Obama’s call appeared designed to remind India that Obama sees that country as a key partner in Asia, a message he delivered there last November.

On economic issues, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said there had been “very promising changes” in Chinese economic policy over the past year. These include a modest appreciation of China’s currency, with a sense that more is on the way, and a promise to better protect the rights of U.S. and other foreign companies.

Still, the U.S. is using the meetings to push into sensitive terrain — urging the Community Party-controlled government to loosen control of its financial system, a major source of state power and conduit of investment to state-controlled enterprises.

Opening up the financial sector is considered important to boosting the spending power of Chinese households and making the country less dependent on exports for its economic success.

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