US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) with Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa during their meeting in Jakarta
China warned the United States not to get involved in South China Sea territorial disputes on Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Beijing pledging to pass on a strong message on the need to calm regional tension.
The last time Clinton visited the Chinese capital, plans to highlight improving U.S.-China ties were derailed by a blind Chinese dissident whose dramatic flight to the U.S. embassy exposed the deeply uneasy relationship, reports Reuters.
The irritants this time are disputes over tiny islets and craggy outcrops in oil- and gas-rich areas of the South and East China Seas that have set China against U.S. regional allies such as the Philippines and Taiwan.
As Clinton travelled back to Beijing on Tuesday, U.S. officials say the message is once again one of cooperation and partnership - and an important chance to compare notes during a year of political transition.
But the unease remains, sharpened by disputes in the South and East China Seas that have rattled nerves across the region and led to testy exchanges with Washington just as the Obama administration "pivots" to the Asia-Pacific region following years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei suggested at a daily news briefing that Washington was not a helpful force in the maritime disputes.
"We have noted that the United States has stated many times that it does not take sides," he said when asked about the U.S. role. "We hope that the United States will abide by its promises and do more that is beneficial to regional peace and stability, and not the opposite."
Chinese newspapers, including Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, have suggested the South China Sea territorial claims are among Beijing's "core national interests" - a term suggesting they share the same importance as sovereignty over Tibet and Xinjiang.
Hong did not directly answer a question about whether that was the government's official position.
"China, like any other country in the world, has the duty to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.
In Jakarta on Monday, Clinton urged China and its Southeast Asian neighbours to move quickly on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and stressed that disputes should be resolved "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force".
But progress has been thwarted in recent months by China's increasingly assertive posture, which has included establishing a garrison on a disputed island and stepping up patrols of contested waters.
That suggests Beijing has no intention of backing down on its unilateral claim to sovereignty over a huge stretch of ocean and potentially equally large energy reserves.
Clinton faces a balancing act, pushing on the territorial disputes while keeping cooperation on track on other issues including reining in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, the Syria crisis and economic disputes that have long bedevilled the two countries.
"One of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have different perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case on the water," one senior U.S. official said.
But some Chinese media have been blunt in their opposition to Clinton. The Global Times, a popular, nationalist tabloid, accused her of "deeply intensifying mutual suspicion".
"Many Chinese people dislike Hillary Clinton," it said in an editorial. "She has brought new and extremely profound mutual distrust between the mainstream societies of the two countries, and removing that will not be easy."