BEIJING — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew into a storm of criticism in Beijing on Tuesday in the midst of a six-nation tour perceived by China as aimed at curbing its influence in Asia.
“Many Chinese people dislike Hillary Clinton,” the often-acerbic Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper stated in an editorial. “She has brought new and extremely profound mutual distrust between the mainstream societies of the two countries."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was more polite, saying at a briefing in advance of Clinton’s arrival late Tuesday, “We hope the U.S. side will keep its commitment and make efforts that help, rather than harm, regional peace and stability.”
High on the agenda in Beijing are the myriad of disputes between China and neighbors — Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia — over uninhabited islets and fishing waters.
Clinton has proposed a code of conduct to be used as a mechanism to resolve such disputes through the Assn. of South East Asian Nations. Such a code would “literally calm the waters,” Clinton said in Jakarta, Indonesia, ahead of her flight to China.
Beijing has rejected what it calls U.S. meddling in the conflicts, apparently believing it has more clout asserting its claims bilaterally with its neighbors.
“We feel there are too many different countries ganging up on us. The U.S. is playing the role of the aggressor here .... It is a sign of their insecurity in the global arena," said Xu Guangyu, a retired military officer and analyst for the China Arms Control and Disarmament Assn. in Beijing.
China’s irritation with Clinton has been building for months. The Chinese are still simmering over remarks she made over the summer during a tour of Africa in which, without mentioning China by name, she urged nations on the continent to deal only with pro-democracy foreign powers.
Clinton’s trip comes to Beijing in the middle of an 11-day tour designed to show the flag in a region where China’s influence — and money — increasingly hold sway. It began with an improbable visit to the tiny Cook Islands (population 13,000) and includes stops in Indonesia, East Timor, Brunei and the Russian Far East.
“The concurrent themes that run through this is a strong, determined effort on the part of the United States to underscore our rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific region, to make clear that we’re here to stay,” is how a senior State Department official described the trip Thursday on the eve of Clinton’s departure.
For its part, the official New China News Agency editorialized last week that the trip is “aimed at curbing China’s growing influence,” “stirring up disputes” and perpetuating the “surreal ambition of ruling the Asia-Pacific and the world.”
In her speeches over the last week, Clinton has tried to back away from criticizing China and to downplay the rivalry. “After all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us,” she said during her first stop in Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands, where she attended a Pacific Islands Forum.
And despite the hostile editorials, Clinton is getting the highest level reception in Beijing. Her schedule was expected to include meeting with President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping, his designated successor.
“The Chinese government takes her very seriously and not just because of her current position, but because of her political influence,” said Jin Canrong, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing, alluding to the reports that Clinton might run for president in 2016. “This may well be her last trip as secretary of State so they want to say hello and goodbye."
China has its own leadership transition coming up with the 18th Communist Party congress expected in mid-October, and the leadership needs to create the impression of smooth relations with the United States.
-- Barbara Demick
Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her U.S. team meet with Chinese foreign ministry officials Tuesday in Beijing. Credit: Feng Li / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images