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On Asia-Pacific trip, Hillary Clinton downplays U.S.-China friction

By John Pomfret
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; A07

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, CALIF. -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday played down friction between the United States and China, saying she thinks the countries have a "mature" enough relationship to be able to handle differences of opinion.

Speaking on the first day of her first trip of the new year -- a nine-day, three-nation Asia-Pacific journey -- Clinton said that China's rise in the region has made U.S. engagement all the more crucial.

"Everyone's aware that China is a rising power of the 21st century," she said on her plane. "But people want to see the United States fully engaged in Asia, so that as China rises the United States is there as a force for peace."

China has reacted strongly to a U.S. decision last week to sell almost $1 billion in anti-missile batteries and missiles to Taiwan. So far, six senior Chinese officials have publicly criticized the deal. China claims Taiwan as its territory and has said the United States is interfering in its internal affairs by selling arms to the island of 20 million. The U.S. government is mandated under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan's defense.

"What I'm expecting is that we actually are having a mature relationship," Clinton said when asked about China. "That means that it doesn't go off the rails when we have differences of opinion."

Clinton acknowledged that more friction is likely when President Obama meets with the Dalai Lama. In an effort to get off to a good start with China, Obama last year postponed a meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader until after a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama is expected to take place soon.

While Clinton said the United States recognizes China's sovereignty over Tibet, she said U.S. officials differ with China over the region. "We support the legitimate desire for cultural, religious respect and autonomy," she said.

Clinton will visit Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia on this trip, part of what the administration has framed as its commitment to deepening relations with the region.

The secretary's first stop after this air base will be Hawaii, where she will meet with Japan's foreign minister, Katsuya Okada.

Relations with Japan, America's most important ally in Asia, have worsened significantly in recent months as the Obama administration and Japan's new government have clashed over a plan to move a Marine Corps helicopter base from one part of Okinawa to another.

Clinton signaled a shift in U.S. policy on that front, saying she is looking forward to talking to Okada about issues broader than the fate of the Futenma air base. She said she expects the meetings to "reaffirm the centrality of our 50-year-old alliance." Some Obama administration officials are worried that Japan's new government wants to push Japan away from the United States and toward China.

On Iran, Clinton said the United States is interested in pushing "smarter" sanctions -- targeting, for example, organizations such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps, rather than the economy of the whole country. By doing so, the United States would try to avoid hurting ordinary Iranians and more directly squeeze the government, which the United States believes has a significant nuclear weapons program.

"It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran," she said. "They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those that actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions."

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