BEIJING _ Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set a new tone Saturday for U.S. relations with China, saying the two nations would join a common battle against global warming even as they look for ways to pull the world out of economic turmoil and recession.
Clinton cited the "tremendous opportunity" before Washington and Beijing as they unite on "one of the most important issues that has ever, ever faced humanity." But Clinton skated over the more contentious issue of China's human rights record.
After touring an energy-efficient, low-polluting power generating plant built partly with U.S. technology, Clinton noted that China had surpassed the United States last year as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. She urged the two sides to work together in researching renewable energy sources, less polluting technologies and energy efficiency.
"What we hope is that you won't make the same mistakes we made because I don't think either China or the world could afford that," Clinton said.
To the apparent relief of China, Clinton downplayed issues of human rights and religious freedom, saying they were raised in her meetings but that the administration of President Barack Obama saw advantage to working with Beijing on areas of greater agreement.
"It is essential that the United States and China have a cooperative, positive relationship," Clinton said at a news conference with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
Several human rights groups decried Clinton's suggestion that human rights would not be a priority in U.S. engagement with China. Amnesty International said it was "shocked and extremely disappointed."
Another advocacy group, China Human Rights Defenders, said police confined some dissidents to their homes during Clinton's weekend visit to Beijing. Among those under lockdown was constitutional scholar Zhang Zuhua, one of hundreds of dissidents who late last year signed Charter 08, which calls for greater civil rights and political reforms.
Clinton's stop in China is the last in her four-nation Asian tour, which already took her to Japan, Indonesia and South Korea. She described her first foray abroad as a "listening" tour.
She met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao after holding a 90-minute session with Yang, who said he would travel to Washington March 9 to prepare the groundwork for a meeting between Hu and Obama during a summit of G-20 nations in London in April.
Clinton voiced hopes that the summit would bring about "a new international financial system that will provide supervision particularly for cross-border capital flows."
She dismissed concerns that China might reduce its purchasing of U.S. Treasury notes, limiting Washington's capacity to engage in deficit spending. China is the world's largest holder of U.S. debt, guarding about $700 billion in T-notes.
"I appreciate greatly the Chinese government's continued confidence in United States Treasuries. I think that's a well-founded confidence," Clinton said. "We have every reason to believe that the United States and China will recover and will help the world to recover."
It was at a multistory power plant off Beijing's north Fourth Ring Road where Clinton, with the administration's special envoy for climate change Todd Stern in tow, delved with most passion into her day's public events, declaring that "clean energy and climate change will be at the center" of a periodic high-level Sino-U.S. strategic and economic dialogue that she and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will undertake with their Chinese counterparts.
Stern said the gas-fired Taiyanggong power plant using gas turbine technology developed by General Electric produces only half the emissions of a normal coal-fired plant.
"This is exactly the kind of thing that the United States and China have to do together," Stern said at a meeting inside the bowels of the plant, which provides energy for a million homes. "It's creative, it's effective and it's profitable."
Stern said the United States and China together produce 40 percent of worldwide carbon emissions and that only by working jointly can they attain headway on global warming.
"This is not a matter of politics or morality or right or wrong. It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions," Stern said.
Economic crisis is no reason to put off action on climate change, he said, noting that joint efforts could lead to large-scale investment and discovery of new technologies.
"Don't believe people who tell you we can't do this now, that we have to go slow, that we need to wait until this economic crisis is over," Stern said.
Clinton said she'd heard a Chinese proverb that was fitting to the issue of climate change: "Dig the well before you go thirsty."
"I love Chinese proverbs," she said to chuckles from university students and researchers invited to attend the event.
She quoted another in a meeting with Premier Wen, triggering some back and forth. The state Xinhua news agency said Clinton quoted a proverb that goes, "When in a common boat, cross the river peacefully together."
"Another saying in the book goes, 'progress with hand in hand,'" Wen told her, according to Xinhua.