Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shake hands at the Ziguangge Pavilion in Beijing on September 5, 2012. (Feng Li/GETTY IMAGES)

Hillary Clinton, top Chinese officials air some differences

It was supposed to be short and sweet — potentially the last trip to China for Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state.

But her overnight stay in Beijing began with vicious personal attacks against her in the government-run media and continued with sharp disagreements with China’s top leaders. Then Clinton was mysteriously stood up by the future leader of the country.

The visit finished Wednesday in dramatic fashion: an announcement from the Chinese government two hours before Clinton’s departure that a former police official who had sought sanctuary at a U.S. consulate months earlier and triggered a still-roiling political scandal was being charged with defection and other crimes in what appeared to many analysts like a stick in the eye aimed at the United States.

In all, Clinton’s trip exposed real differences, frustrating difficulties and aspects of the U.S.-China relationship that remain outright puzzling after four years of engagement, strategic castigating and a search for balance between the two.

At a news conference Wednesday after meeting with President Hu Jintao and other top Chinese officials, Clinton tried to explain the complicated bilateral relationship, which frequently veers between friendship and suspicion, cooperation and competition.

“Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history,” she said, “which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”

The Chinese leaders struck a markedly different tone.

“Generally speaking, our relationship has been moving forward, but recently I am more or less worried,” Premier Wen Jiabao told Clinton in a slow, measured voice, deviating from the usual empty pleasantries of official Chinese meetings. “I feel that our two countries should maintain political mutual respect and strategic mutual trust. The United States should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In his sharp comments, made in front of a handful of reporters at the beginning of Wen’s meeting with Clinton, the premier blamed the United States for the troubles between the two countries.

With his mention of “sovereignty,” Wen was alluding to territorial disputes between China and its neighbors that have intensified dramatically in recent months. On the South China Sea especially, China has been the most aggressive actor, claiming almost the entire disputed area.

China has expressed increasing suspicion and resentment at the growing U.S. involvement in the Asia-Pacific region and has taken issue with Clinton and others who have pushed on behalf of smaller Asian nations for peaceful, collaborative negotiations.

Divisions on display

The disagreements between Clinton’s delegation and the Chinese were so deep that her first meeting Tuesday night, which was with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and had been scheduled to last an hour, stretched into a four-hour marathon that ended at 1 a.m.

The next day, the divisions on Syria, Iran and North Korea also were evident.

In a joint news conference, Clinton said it was “no secret” that the United States was disappointed with how China and Russia have blocked calls on the U.N. Security Council for stronger international intervention in war-torn Syria.

Yang rebutted, “I think history will judge that China’s position on the Syria question is a promotion of the appropriate handling of the situation, for what we have in mind is the interests of the people of Syria and the region.”

The hits kept coming, especially when Clinton’s meeting with Xi Jinping — the man expected to replace Hu in the fall as China’s top leader — was abruptly canceled.

Yang did not explain the cancellation publicly but warned against using it as an excuse for “unnecessary speculation,” which only fueled more speculation.

Two news outlets quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying that the Chinese had cited a problem with Xi’s back. But some diplomats questioned whether that private explanation could be fully trusted.

Political transitions

One explanation for the tensions on both sides is the simultaneous leadership transition underway — with a presidential election in the United States and a similarly brutal competition for the handful of seats on China’s ruling council that has been cloaked in secrecy.

One of the only signs of the titanic struggle rumored to be going on between factions of the Communist Party here is the recent string of scandals that some contenders have used to edge out rivals for the top seats and strengthen their own position.

Against that backdrop, the former police chief and accused defector Wang Lijun has played a central role. Wang, whom some consider ruthless, triggered China’s biggest political scandal in two decades when he rushed to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu in February, reportedly telling American officials that the wife of his boss, powerful party chief Bo Xilai, had killed a British businessman.

In a system in which the party tightly controls everything that is remotely political or that threatens its grip on power, several analysts and former diplomats said, it is very likely that the timing of the charges against Wang while Clinton was still in China was intentional and required approval by top Chinese leaders.

But what message it was meant to convey remained open to interpretation.

U.S. officials said they received no warning that the charges were imminent even as they met with most of China’s highest-ranking officials. But the American officials added that during their visit, they sensed anxiety over the upcoming leadership transfer.

China’s leaders are said to be eager to deal with the remaining scandals before the party congress later this year, at which the country’s new ruling council will be announced.

Despite the difficult meetings, setbacks and mixed messages, Clinton stuck to a conciliatory tone throughout Wednesday.

“We are convinced that our countries gain far more when we cooperate with each other than when we descend into unhealthy competition,” she said at a midday news conference. “We will never agree on all matters — no countries do. The key is to manage our differences, deal openly with misunderstandings when they do occur, and remain transparent and clear with each other.”

Jia Lynn Yang contributed to this report.