WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States sought on Wednesday to play down a confrontation between Chinese and U.S. naval vessels as the two sides held high-level talks on reviving growth and reining in North Korea's nuclear program.

Tensions between the two countries rose over a weekend incident in the South China Sea in which five Chinese ships jostled with a U.S. Navy survey vessel off China's southern Hainan island, site of a major submarine base and other naval installations.

The United States has said its ship, the Impeccable, was in international waters. Beijing, however, has said the U.S. ship was in the wrong and Chinese navy officers have argued that it had violated their country's sovereignty.

There are no signs, however, that the disagreement will derail broader political and economic negotiations as the two countries seek to grapple with the global financial crisis, security challenges like North Korea and climate change.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she raised the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who was to see U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner later in the day and, in a rare gesture, to meet President Barack Obama on Thursday.

We both agreed that we should work to ensure that such incidents do not happen again in the future, Clinton told reporters after a meeting Yang. They also discussed human rights, North Korea, Iran and the ailing world economy.


Obama is scheduled to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao next month on the sidelines of a meeting of the group of 20 rich and developing countries that hope to agree on coordinated steps to spark growth, quell the banking crisis and improve regulation.

Clinton described the moves that China has already taken to stimulate its economy as significant and praised them as a very positive step. She said it was important that the G20 meeting yield collective action to spark global recover.

On North Korea, Clinton said there was a range of options, including U.N. Security Council action, that could be pursued against Pyongyang if it tested a long-range ballistic missile, which she said would be a provocative act.

North Korea last month said it was preparing to launch a satellite on one of its rockets, which analysts believe could be a test of its longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2. The missile is designed to hit Alaska but it managed just a few seconds of controlled flight and broke apart in less than a minute the only time it has been tested, in 2006.

North Korea has been hit with U.N. sanctions for previous ballistic missile tests and is banned from conducting further tests. It argues that the missiles are part of its peaceful space program and it has the right to put satellites in orbit.

She also urged North Korea to return to the negotiating table to discuss a multilateral aid-for-disarmament deal in which Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear programs and said she regretted that Pyongyang had not allowed her new envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to visit when he was in Asia recently.


The U.S. Secretary of State also took pains to try to rebut criticism from rights groups upset by her remark last month that concerns about China's human rights record can't interfere with joint work on the economy and other issues.

Clinton said that she and Yang spoke about human rights and about Tibet, which this week marks the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

Human rights is part of our comprehensive dialogue. It doesn't take a front or a back seat or a middle seat, she told reporters. It is part of the broad range of issues that we are discussing, but it is important to try to create a platform for actually seeing results from our human rights engagement.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution 422-1 recognizing the 50th anniversary and calling on Beijing to find a lasting solution.

If freedom loving people around the world do not speak out for human rights in China and Tibet, then we lose the moral authority to talk about it any other place in the world, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor before the vote.

(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Susan Cornwell, Andy Sullivan, John Whitesides and Tabassum Zakaria, Editing by Sandra Maler)