WASHINGTON — The Obama administration faces a sea of obstacles, setbacks and conflicts with China as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton heads to the emerging global powerhouse Saturday for talks.
The two countries, with a long history of mutual antagonism, are at odds over many big issues: from currency and trade policy to the U.S. naval dominance of the Asia-Pacific region, from U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to China's human rights record and its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But the Obama administration says it has not given up on building stronger bonds with Beijing, one of the world's fastest growing economic and military powers.
In a speech in Honolulu Thursday, Clinton talked tough, lumping China with North Korea and Myanmar as sources of concern about "deep-seated challenges" facing the Asia-Pacific region.
She also urged Beijing to become the United States' partner in tackling a number of regional and global challenges.
Despite the stormy U.S.-China relationship, Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington, sees the administration taking a stay-the-course approach overall.
"It's only the Chinese who are down" about the rocky side of the relationship, Thompson said in an interview Thursday.
Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia policy official, said it is vital for the U.S. to maintain "cool-headed" diplomacy with China.
"We all understand the stakes involved and the importance for a positive, constructive and, frankly, a relationship with a degree of confidence between the United States and China going forward," he said Tuesday in describing Clinton's China visit.
Clinton was in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Friday. She planned to meet with the Chinese foreign minister there on Saturday before making a brief visit to China's Hainan Island with her Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Their talks are intended to raise some of the issues dividing the two countries and pave the way for President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington early next year.
Beijing's growing economic might and more assertive role on the world stage make its support crucial to many of President Barack Obama's priorities — including halting the global spread of nuclear arms.
China is seen as the key to persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. China's dependence on Iranian oil for its rapidly industrializing economy makes it crucial to the success of U.N. sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program.
"We're seeking the mantra of a positive, cooperative, constructive relationship," Jeff Bader of the National Security Council said Thursday.
He noted that Obama has met seven times with Hu and three times with Premier Wen Jiabao. "I guarantee you that's unprecedented in modern history," Bader said.
But the U.S. has also felt compelled to reassure Asian nations that the U.S. is not ceding its major role in the Asia-Pacific region, bolstering ties to longtime allies Japan and South Korea.
In an unmistakable reference to China, Clinton said Thursday that "military buildups matched with ongoing territorial disputes create anxieties that reverberate." The disputes are a prominent part of the backdrop to Clinton's stop on Hainan, a tropical island east of Vietnam in the South China Sea.
A U.S. Navy spy plane was forced to land there in April 2001 after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The 24 U.S. crew members were held for 11 days until the Bush administration apologized for the collision that killed a Chinese pilot.
China is also sparring with its neighbors over control of the Spratly and Paracel islands, claimed by Vietnam and other nations as well as Beijing. The contested islands straddle busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China's fast-expanding economy.
Clinton raised hackles in Beijing when she said in July that the United States has a national interest in the peaceful resolution of competing claims to the islands.
The Pentagon has long expressed concern about the rapid modernization of China's military, particularly its focus on deploying ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan, the semiautonomous island that Beijing considers a renegade province.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates accepted an invitation to visit China and is expected to go next year.