WASHINGTON — Chinese President Hu Jintao denied his country is a military threat despite its arms buildup and pressed the U.S. on Thursday for closer cooperation between the global powers. He urged the United States to treat China "with respect and as equals" after encountering a fresh barrage of criticism from lawmakers over human rights.
In a luncheon speech to American business executives, Hu also urged the U.S. to continue to recognize China's sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet.
"China-U.S. relations will enjoy smooth and steady growth when the two countries handle well issues involving each other's major interests. Otherwise, our relations will suffer constant trouble or even tension," Hu said as he wrapped up his state visit to Washington.
The Chinese leader headed next to Chicago where he was dining Thursday evening with retiring Mayor Richard Daley, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and business leaders. On Friday, he visits a Chinese center at a high school and a Chinese auto parts producer.
Earlier Thursday, Hu went to Capitol Hill for closed-door meetings with members of the House and the Senate. Participants said he got an earful of complaints from some of his strongest congressional critics, especially over China's business and trade practices and human rights conduct.
President Barack Obama had expressed similar human rights concerns a day earlier at the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House members "raised our strong, ongoing concerns with reports of human rights violations in China, including the denial of religious freedom and the use of coercive abortion" as a result of China's one-child policy.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she gave Hu a copy of a letter she sent to Obama highlighting "grave concerns" over human rights, currency manipulation and aggressive military gestures.
"Out of all the issues I raised, the only one which received a response from Mr.Hu was my statement urging the end of China's forced abortion policy. I was astonished when he insisted that such a policy does not exist," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he raised issues of trade, Chinese currency policies and a need for more Chinese investment and tourism in the U.S.
"Although we have our differences, we look forward to strengthening our relationship in a way that allows us to address global economic and security issues," Reid said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, said the past year has been a challenging one in U.S.-China relations.
"Despite the shared gains achieved working together on global problems, many in Congress today believe the United States and China are on a collision course. It's critical that leaders in both countries don't allow mutual suspicions to degenerate into fear-mongering and demagoguery," Kerry said.
Hu received a generally warmer reception at the luncheon session hosted jointly by the U.S.-China Business Council, which is made up of corporate officials with business ties to China, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a foreign-relations policy group.
"We will remain committed to the path of peaceful development," Hu told the luncheon. "We do not engage in an arms race, we are not a military threat to any country. China will never seek to dominate or pursue an expansionist policy."
Hu said China intended to "develop a socialist democracy and build a socialist country under the rule of law."
In particular, Hu called for closer U.S.-Chinese cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.
"We should stay committed to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, engage in open and inclusive regional cooperation, and turn the Asia-Pacific into an important region where China and the United States work closely with each other on the basis of mutual respect," Hu said.
As to his warning on Taiwan and Tibet, Hu said such matters "concern Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. They touch upon the national sentiments of 1.3 billion Chinese."
It was a reference to China's 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 the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The U.S. and China must "treat each other with respect and as equals and handle major sensitive issues in a proper manner," Hu said.
In recent years, China has grown stronger both economically and militarily. Worrisome to the Pentagon is Beijing's increasingly aggressive stance in the western Pacific and questions over the extent to which the People's Liberation Army — which also includes China's air force and navy — is answerable to civilian leaders in the one-party government.
During Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to China earlier this month, the Chinese military's decision to conduct a test flight of its first aircraft designed to evade radar — the J-20 stealth fighter — appeared to catch Hu and other Chinese civilian leaders off guard. Also of concern to the U.S.: China's development of anti-ship missiles that could make it harder for American aircraft carriers to operate in the western Pacific.
Hu did not specifically mention human rights in his speech to the business leaders.
A day earlier, Hu stood alongside Obama at a White House news conference and conceded, "A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."
Those remarks were welcomed by the White House as a significant conciliatory gesture. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday called them a "frank admission."
"While we appreciate those words, the United States will watch the actions of the Chinese government to make sure that they meet the words that were spoken in the White House yesterday," Gibbs said.
The Chinese leader was introduced by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who as national security adviser for President Richard Nixon was instrumental in 1974 in opening formal ties between the two countries.
Kissinger said normalizing U.S.-Chinese relations "after so many years of separation did shake the world."
But now, Kissinger said, "This generation has a different task. . We are working to build the world, not to shake it."