American Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's meetings in Beijing with President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi should not have been expected to go smoothly. The US and China are locked in a war of words over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. The Obama administration's rebalancing strategy towards Asia has irked Chinese leaders. And US pressure to support UN action over Syria and Iran has been roundly ignored. Republican party presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has caused anger by pledging to declare China a "currency manipulator" if elected. That the talks were cordial and positive bears testament to the strength of the relationship.
These are no ordinary times. China's political powerbrokers are in the final throes of choosing the country's leadership for the next decade and presidential elections held every four years take place in the US in two months. Coming amid tensions over islands contested by countries with firm alliances to the US, nationalist rhetoric on all sides has been fiery. US President Barack Obama has been accused by his opponents of being soft on foreign policy, particularly towards China; the South China Sea was, therefore, unsurprisingly high on Clinton's agenda during talks with Yang.
She wanted - and got - Beijing's assurance that it would work on a code of conduct with Southeast Asian neighbours to manage the territorial disputes. A draft text has been prepared for the East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh in mid-November and Clinton expressed hope that it could be approved then. That would be good after the annual meeting of Association of Southeast Asian nations' foreign ministers failed in July to find common ground. But it would be overly optimistic given the complexities to believe consensus could be quickly reached.
China is suspicious of US intentions - Wen made that clear, saying he had worries. Clinton tried to calm concerns by contending that the US is interested not in containment, but in protecting trade and the mobility of its navy. Trust is built on actions, not just words, and greater assurances will be needed before doubts can be put aside. But the conciliatory tone of the talks proved how mature ties have grown.
It is in the interests of China and the US that their relationship is stable and friendly. Both will benefit, as will the region and the world. Big differences remain, but these can be bridged as long as talks on equal terms continue.