WASHINGTON — Touching on a key source of tension between the U.S. and China, President Barack Obama greeted Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday by stressing the need for nations to observe universal human rights. Hu responded with a call for both countries to respect each other's core interests.
Yet in a sign of the growing economic bonds between the two superpowers, the White House said China planned to announce major business deals that would mean $45 billion in new U.S. exports. The White House also said China was taking significant steps to curtail the theft of intellectual property and expand U.S. investment.
Obama welcomed Hu to the White House with full honors and a red-carpet greeting, marking the start of daylong meetings to address trade, security and human rights issues that have been the cause of past strain between the two powers.
"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 peoples are upheld including the universal rights of every human being," Obama said in his remarks.
China's human right's policies have caused strains between the rival powers, with the U.S. calling on China to release jailed dissidents, including Nobel peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was prevented from attending the Dec. 10 prize ceremony in the Norwegian capital.
Obama's tone was nonetheless friendly, welcoming China's rise as a global economic force. "We have an enormous stake in each other's success," he said.
Hu said the relationship between the two counties has grown to one of "strategic significance and global influence."
But he pointedly added: "China and the United States should respect each other's choice of development paths and each other's core interests."
By "core interests" Hu was referring to issues on which China will brook no challenge, such as its claim to the currently self-governing island of Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949, and to Tibet, which is already under China's control. U.S. leaders, including Obama, have irked China repeatedly by meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
For all the pomp and ceremony of the day, the tensions between the nations were boldly evident. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and a member of Obama's party, called Hu "a dictator."
In the House of Representatives, several members of the new Republican-led Foreign Affairs Committee assailed the regime's record on human rights, military expansion, financial moves and weapons sales. Several witnesses testifying at a committee hearing Wednesday, among them retired military and diplomats, echoed the lawmakers' harsh take on China.
"When the Cold War ended over two decades ago, many in the West assumed that the threat from communism had been buried with the rubble of the Berlin Wall. However, while America slept, an authoritarian China was on the rise," Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the committee, said.
The state visit marked Hu's first trip to the U.S. since 2006, when his arrival ceremony was marred by protocol blunders including an outburst from a protester from the Falun Gong spiritual sect. No such missteps occurred Wednesday.
It follows an up and down two years in which an assertive China initially cold-shouldered the U.S. on climate change, did little to reel in its unpredictable ally North Korea and responded limply to U.S. pleas to mitigate trade imbalances. For its part, the U.S. riled China by selling arms to Taiwan and inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House.
Both sides are now setting a more positive tone.
Hu pulled up to the White House portico Wednesday as part of a highly choreographed arrival, complete with welcomes from the president, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives and a long line of Cabinet members and Chinese dignitaries.
Obama and Hu stood at attention as a military band played both national anthems. The Chinese anthem was properly announced as that of the "People's Republic of China," avoiding another gaffe committed during Hu's 2006 visit, when an announcer mistakenly used the official name of Taiwan.
There was one unforeseen moment. Deborah Mullen, wife of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, fainted toward the end Hu's remarks. She was helped indoors by her husband. Navy Capt. John Kirby, Adm. Mullen's spokesman, says that Deborah Mullen quickly recovered and is "doing just fine."
The two leaders inspected troops on the White House South Lawn. They then approached a rope line where they shook hands and greeted a group of children and young people holding Chinese and U.S. flags, including Obama's 9-year-old daughter, Sasha. The students all attend Washington area schools with programs in China studies and Chinese language.
Obama and Biden then met with Hu in the Oval Office ahead of an expanded meeting that will include their respective staffs. At the top of the meeting, as the two leaders waited for photographers to capture the usual Oval Office handshake, Obama was overheard engaging in a typical conversation ice breaker: The weather.
"This is very typical January weather here in Washington," Obama explained to his guest.
The president also will host a session with Hu, Chinese business leaders and 14 leading American chief executives, many of whom are seeking greater openness from China.
Illustrating the political implications of the trade issue, a bipartisan coalition of 84 House members announced it had sent Obama a letter urging him to get tough with the Chinese president over what the lawmakers called China's consistent violations of international trade law.
Eager to point to trade successes, the White House said China will announce deals Wednesday to purchase $45 billion in U.S. exports, including a $19 billion agreement to buy 200 Boeing airplanes.
A White House fact sheet said the deal will create 235,000 jobs in the U.S. China will also invest in U.S. exports from agriculture, telecommunications and computer companies.
U.S. companies have also bristled at China's "indigenous innovation" policy, which limits Beijing's purchase of foreign products to those designed in China. The White House said Wednesday that China took steps to ease that policy.
The White House also announced China is taking steps to better guard against government use of illegally obtained software. U.S. businesses have long complained about rampant theft in China of their "intellectual property."
Later in the afternoon, the two leaders plan a brief news conference — an uncommon practice for Hu — limited to four questions. Hu will then be honored at a State Department luncheon. The ceremonial highlight of the visit will be a lavish, pomp-filled state dinner Wednesday evening.
Obama and Hu held a private dinner Tuesday night, each accompanied by two of their top officials, in the White House residence. While the agenda is packed with weighty issues, expectations remain modest.
"Overcoming the sense of mistrust is probably the most important thing," said Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Hu's visit comes as the political trajectory has shifted for both nations. China's success in weathering the global economic crisis coincided with worries among its neighbors in Asia over its growing military clout.
Ultimately, that distrust has benefited the U.S., as nations such as Japan, South Korea and even Vietnam have looked to cement stronger ties with the U.S. as a regional power. Obama traveled to Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia in November in part to strengthen those relationships as a buffer against China's might.
The U.S. economy has shown signs of recovery and Obama also has rebounded from his own political problems, notably the loss of one house of Congress to the Republican Party in November midterm elections. A nuclear arms reduction treaty he orchestrated with Russia was approved, and he has been lauded for a touchstone speech in the aftermath of the shooting massacre in Arizona. His previously stellar poll ratings have begun to recover after months in the doldrums.
Illustrating the changed political terrain in Washington, however, the meetings and ceremonies at the White House competed for attention with a vote in the House of Representatives, newly controlled by Republicans, to repeal Obama's signature health care law.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Julie Pace and Erica Werner contributed to this report.