Clinton presses China on rights before visit

WASHINGTON, January 14, 2011 (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday made a passionate call for China to improve human rights, pledging not to shy away from disagreements ahead of a state visit by President Hu Jintao.

In a wide-ranging speech less a week before Hu was due in Washington, Clinton said the United States sought a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship" with China and welcomed the Asian power's rise, dismissing calls for a Cold War-style containment policy.

Clinton was unusually forthright in her call for human rights, urging China to free dissidents including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo who is serving an 11-year prison sentence after authoring a petition for political reform.

"A vibrant civil society would help address some of China's most pressing issues, from food safety to pollution to education to health care," Clinton said.

"The longer China represses freedoms, the longer it will miss out on these opportunities and the longer that Liu Xiaobo's empty chair in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation's unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise."

China has tried to block news at home of Liu's Nobel Peace Prize and urged a boycott of last month's ceremony in Oslo, where where the activist writer was represented by a poignant empty chair.

"Many in China resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on their sovereignty," Clinton acknowledged.

"But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights that are recognized by the international community," she said.

Clinton also raised the cases of Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer who has not been heard from since April, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist jailed after recounting abuses in the one-child policy.

Clinton's remarks come after criticism by human rights groups over President Barack Obama's embrace of China. Obama will welcome Hu on Wednesday at the White House with the full pomp of a gun salute and dinner, unlike former president George W. Bush who reserved state visits for leaders of democracies.

Clinton came under fire at home early in her tenure when she said human rights would not "interfere" with cooperation between the United States and China on issues such as reviving the global economy and fighting climate change.

She took a different tone on Friday, saying that the Pacific powers needed to be "honest about their differences."

Clinton was also critical of China's treatment of its ally North Korea, particularly its refusal to condemn its neighbor over last year's sinking of South Korea's Cheonan vessel.

"We warned China that failure to respond clearly to the sinking of a South Korean military vessel would embolden North Korea to continue on a dangerous course," she said.

But Clinton also reiterated the Obama administration's view that cooperation was vital, saying that "this is not a relationship that fits neatly into black-and-white categories like friend or rival."

"We are two complex nations with profoundly different political systems and outlooks. But we are both deeply invested in the current order, and we both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict," she said.

Clinton said that Asian nations -- many of them increasingly uneasy about Beijing's military expansion -- should not have to choose between Washington and Beijing.

"In the 21st century, it does not make sense to apply zero-sum 19th century theories of how major powers interact. We are moving through uncharted territory," she said.

In phrases likely to be watched closely in Asian capitals, Clinton said the United States and China had "as important as any bilateral relationship in the world" but said there was "no such thing as a G-2" -- the idea that Washington and Beijing should determine major global issues together.

Clinton was delivering what the State Department said would be an annual lecture in memory of Richard Holbrooke, the hard-charging US diplomat who suddenly died last month at age 69.