On Friday the United States and China announced that new conduct guidelines agreed by Beijing and Southeast Asian nations marked progress towards resolving territorial disputes over the South China Sea. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, meeting at Asia's biggest security conference, appeared eager to downplay tensions 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 the Indonesian island of Bali.
China had agreed to the new guidelines on Thursday in an attempt, according to one analyst, to mollify ASEAN enough to tick the topic off the agenda before Clinton's arrival.
Yang, who held bilateral talks with Clinton outside the security forum, said Beijing thought the guidelines were significant: "It will go a long way to maintaining peace and stability and good neighbourliness in the region, and this will also provide favourable conditions for the proper handling of settlements of the disputes among the claimants."
China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam -- all claim territory in the oil-and gas-rich waters of the South China Sea; Washington had irritated Beijing by declaring it too had national stakes in ensuring freedom of navigation and trade there.China also accused Washington of triggering tension by holding naval drills in the region, while President Barack Obama's meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama last week further strained relations. But on Friday, Clinton and Yang appeared ready to set aside such differences, at least in public.
Yang did not mention Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing regards as a violent separatist, and instead focused on US-Chinese cooperation on a range of issues including efforts to bring North Korea back into six-party negotiations on its nuclear programme."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 shown positive interest in Beijing's efforts to restart arms-for-disarmament talks with Pyongyang.US officials said Clinton's meeting with Yang in Bali marks the start of several months of high-profile US 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.
For her part Clinton will fly from Bali to Hong Kong on Sunday -- she will be the first US secretary of state to visit since 1997, when China resumed control of the city from Britain -- stopping at the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Monday for a meeting with Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo.
Clinton is due to give a speech in Hong Kong on Monday that will emphasise the US take on Hong Kong’s economic ties with China, which have been a source of tension in the past.Washington has urged Beijing to allow the yuan to appreciate against the dollar to combat a hugely lopsided trade balance, and taken a firm line against Chinese "indigenous innovation" policies which require foreign companies' to transfer patents and other intellectual property to China before gaining access to government equipment.