Clinton, in a policy speech at the U.S.-sponsored East-West Center in Honolulu, said the Asia-Pacific relationship is a priority for the administration of President Barack Obama, who spent some of his formative years in Hawaii and in Indonesia.
She said the United States is committed to seeking a cooperative and mature relationship with China, one that is not "knocked of course" when differences erupt on specific issues.
And, in response to a question from a Chinese student at the policy center at the University of Hawaii, Clinton said China would benefit from a more-open society.
"We hope that there will be increasing openness, politically, in China," Clinton said. "We hope that there will be an opportunity for more of the Chinese people to exercise the full range of human rights and freedom. And, we say that to our friends in China in the leadership meetings that we have and it is something that we believe would be in the best interests of China."
The secretary spoke on the eve of her departure for Papua-New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia on what will be her fourth trip to the Asia-Pacific region since taking office.
Clinton has put heavy stress on the United States returning to a major political role in the region, after what was seen as a preoccupation by the Bush administration with Iraq and other matters.
She departed from a prepared text to deliver what appeared to be an indirect swipe at her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, who broke long standing tradition by not regularly attending ministerial meetings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"We need to recognize that these regional organizations are very important to the actors that are in them," Clinton said. "And, the failure of the United States to participate demonstrates a lack of respect and a willingness to engage. And, that is why I made it very clear upon becoming Secretary of State that the United States would show up."
Earlier, Clinton met at a resort hotel with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, whose left-leaning government has irritated American officials by reconsidering a 2006 bilateral agreement to alter the U.S. military presence on Japan's southern island, Okinawa.
The deal, a product of years of negotiations, provides for moving some U.S. forces from Okinawa to Guam, while relocating the key Futenma Marine base farther from populated areas.
The new Japanese government has suggested it might seek additional cuts in an Okinawa presence the United States sees as critical to regional security.
Heard through an interpreter at a news conference with Clinton, the Japanese minister said Tokyo aims for a decision by May.
"We've now have a change in government in Japan and there are different views within the coalition government," Okada said. "And, against that backdrop, we have set a time-line of May. And, within the coalition government we're working on studying a replacement site. We will come up with a conclusion by May so that they'll be a minimum impact on the Japan-U.S. alliance.
For her part, Clinton said that, both in terms of protecting Japan and limiting the impact of U.S. bases on Okinawans, the 2006 "road map" should be followed.
"The United States has already made decisions based on that road map, which was accepted by prior governments," she said. "So we want to work closely with our alliance partner and reach the best outcome for Japan and the United States. And, as I have said several times already, we think the realignment road map provides the best way forward."
A senior official told reporters traveling with Clinton the United States has no choice but to work with the new Tokyo government on the issue.
He says, despite strong views on both sides over the base issue, the overall relationship is much too important to be "held hostage" by one issue.