WASHINGTON -- Trade relations and human rights dominated Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the White House, with the visiting leader giving little ground on either but acknowledging that "a lot still needs to be done" in China on human rights.
Obama raised the rights issue even before his counterpart had taken off his coat and been officially welcomed to the White House. In a morning arrival ceremony marked by a 21-gun salute and a review of U.S. military troops, the U.S. leader made a reference to the importance of human rights in any nation's success.
"History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," Obama said.
It couldn't have been lost on many that the man speaking had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and the man standing next to him was responsible for holding the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, as a political prisoner.
But by also telling Hu that the United States "welcomes China's rise" as a strong and prosperous member of the international community, Obama set the tone for the visit between the leaders of the world's two largest economies, which both sides agree is aimed at replacing a relationship full of suspicion with one based on trust and acknowledgement of shared interests.
"At a time when some doubt the benefits of cooperation between the United States and China, this visit is also a chance to demonstrate a simple truth: We have an enormous stake in each other's success. In an interconnected world, in a global economy, nations, including our own, will be more prosperous and more secure when we work together," Obama said.
Hu echoed that sentiment, saying he had made the trip -- almost certainly his last to the United States before he steps aside next year -- to "increase mutual trust, enhance friendship, deepen cooperation" and advance what he called "the positive, cooperative, and comprehensive China-U.S. relationship for the 21st century."
"Our cooperation as partners should be based on mutual respect. We live in an increasingly diverse and colorful world. China and the United States should respect each other's choice of development path and each other's core interests," Hu said.
"We should deepen mutual understanding through communication, increase mutual trust through dialogue, and expand common ground through exchanges," he added.
The two leaders then sat down for bilateral talks, followed by a meeting with Chinese and U.S. business leaders on the economic tensions between Washington and Beijing, which include Chinese import barriers, lack of protection for intellectual property rights, and undervalued currency.
At the gathering, Obama said the two men had "excellent discussions" both at their private dinner on January 18 and in their bilateral meeting, while Hu said he saw "a bright future" for the two countries' trade relations.
The assessment was the first indication that the visit was achieving the hoped-for diplomatic results, but even more telling was the White House's announcement that China had agreed to invest $45 billion in U.S. exports, including the $19 billion purchase of 200 airplanes from Boeing.
Obama said the deals would support or create 235,000 American jobs -- a top priority for the White House at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent.
Administration officials also said China has agreed to abandon its policy of favoring Chinese technology firms in government purchasing contracts and to stop discriminating against new products made by non-Chinese companies.
The two leaders also agreed to seek compromise in their disagreement over China's currency, the yuan, whose value Obama believes should be driven by market forces. The United States has accused China of keeping the yuan's value artificially low to help its exports.
'A Long Way To Go' On Rights
At a joint press conference that was plagued by translation problems, Obama said the two men had discussed China's progress "in moving toward a more market-oriented economy" as well as how the two countries could work together to ensure a strong global economic recovery. He said they had agreed that China needs to boost domestic demand, and the United States needs to spend less and export more.
Obama said he told Hu that there needs to be "a level playing for American companies competing in China, that trade has to be fair." As for the value of the yuan, Obama said he told Hu "that we welcome China's increasing the flexibility of its currency. But I also had to say that the RMB remains undervalued, that there needs to be further adjustment in the exchange rate."
The most obvious lack of a breakthrough came where it almost always does between Beijing and Washington, on human rights. During the question and answer session, the first question came from an American reporter who asked Obama how the United States could be allies with a country that had such a poor human rights record.
The U.S. leader responded by noting that America and China have different political systems and cultures but said he had told Hu that certain rights are universal.
"I reaffirmed America's fundamental commitment to the universal rights of all people, and that includes basic human rights like freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and demonstration, and of religion -- rights that are recognized in the Chinese Constitution," Obama said.
Obama, who won points with Beijing in 2009 when he postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, said the United States "recognizes that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China" and "supports discussions between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's representatives to resolve concerns and differences."
And he defended the U.S. relationship with China as a strategic necessity in what sounded similar to the defense State Department officials give when challenged on the White House's relationship reset with Russia, which, like China, also has a human rights record to answer for.
"I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues [of human rights]," Obama said. "Occasionally, they're a source of tension between our two governments. But what I believed is the same thing that I think seven previous presidents have believed, which is that we can engage and discuss these issues in a frank and candid way, focus on those areas where we agree, while acknowledging there are going to be areas where we disagree."
Hu did not initially answer the question, pleading translation difficulties, but when another reporter brought it up again, he said Obama had raised the human rights issue in each of the eight meetings the two men have had over the last two years.
"China," he said, "is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights."
Hu said China has "made enormous progress" in how it treats its citizens, but is in a unique situation -- what he characterized as "a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform."
His country "faces many challenges in social and economic development," Hu said, before adding, "A lot still needs to be done in China on human rights."
President Hu continues his state visit to the United States with a visit to the midwestern city of Chicago on January 20. There Hu will meet business leaders and is expected to sign a number of U.S.-China trade deals.