By Andrew Quinn
NUSA DUA, Indonesia - The United States and China on Friday sought to calm tensions over the South China Sea, saying new conduct guidelines between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations marked progress toward resolving territorial disputes peacefully.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, meeting at Asia's biggest security conference, appeared eager to downplay strains between the world's largest economy and Asia's emerging economic superpower.
"I want to commend China and ASEAN for working so closely together to include implementation guidelines for the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea," Clinton said at the meeting on Indonesian island Bali.
China acquiesced to the new guidelines on Thursday, in what may have been an attempt to mollify ASEAN enough to take the topic off the table before Clinton's arrival, one analyst said.
Yang, hosting Clinton for bilateral talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN security forum, said Beijing agreed that the guidelines were significant.
"It will go a long way to maintaining peace and stability and good neighborliness in the region, and this will also provide favorable conditions for the proper handling of settlements of the disputes among the claimants," Yang said.
China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam -- all claim territory in the oil-and gas-rich waters and Washington has irritated Beijing by declaring it also has a national interest at stake in ensuring freedom of navigation and trade.
China has also accused the U.S. of triggering tension in the region by holding naval drills, and President Barack Obama's meeting with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama last week has added further strains.
SETTING DISPUTES ASIDE
But on Friday, Clinton and Yang appeared ready to set aside these differences, at least in public.
Yang did not mention Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, regarded by Beijing as a violent separatist, and instead focused on U.S.-Chinese cooperation on a range of issues including efforts to bring North Korea back into six-party negotiations on its nuclear program.
"China and the United States and the other members of the six-party talks need to work together ... to promote a better atmosphere, a good dialogue among the parties concerned," Yang said.
The United States and close allies South Korea and Japan are due to meet at the Bali forum to discuss North Korea. All three have been cool on Beijing's efforts to restart arms-for-disarmament talks with Pyongyang.
U.S. officials said Clinton's meeting in Bali with Yang marked the start of several months of high-profile U.S. diplomacy in the region.
Both Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao are due to attend a meeting of the APEC Asia economic forum in Honolulu later this year, and Obama will also attend November's East Asia Summit in Bali for the first time, giving him another chance to touch base with the Chinese leader.
Clinton will fly on Sunday from Bali to Hong Kong -- the first U.S. secretary of state to visit since 1997 when China resumed control of the city from Britain -- and will stop by the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Monday for a meeting with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.
Clinton is due to give a speech in Hong Kong on Monday that will emphasize the U.S. view of economic ties with China, which have been a serious source of tension in the past.
Washington has urged Beijing to allow its yuan currency to appreciate against the dollar to combat a hugely lopsided trade balance, and the United States has also taken a firm line against Chinese policies of "indigenous innovation" policies.
Under these rules, Beijing makes foreign companies' access to government equipment and technology orders hinge on their transferring patents and other intellectual property to China.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Daniel Magnowski)