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.
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