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Obama, China's Hu agree to disagree

The U.S. and Chinese presidents acknowledge major differences on economic and human rights issues, but they also pledge to cooperate to stabilize Sino-U.S. relations. Hu's visit leads to $45 billion in business deals.

January 19, 2011|By Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The leaders of the U.S. and China unapologetically acknowledged major differences on economic issues and human rights in a White House summit Wednesday, but also pledged cooperation to stabilize relations between the world's two largest economies.

In a day of pomp and pageantry, Chinese President Hu Jintao asserted that his country has made major progress on human rights issues but acknowledged that it could do more. He also committed to easing regulations to increase foreign firms' access to Chinese markets, a growing source of complaints for U.S. businesses.

The two leaders, in their eighth meeting, held their ground on other issues. President Obama repeated his assertions that the Chinese currency is undervalued, and that China needs to take steps to see that competition between the two powers is on a "level playing field."

Yet it appeared the two leaders' latest summit would give Hu the respectful treatment he sought in the U.S. capital, and would satisfy Obama's need to look firm on the economic, security and human rights issues that have divided them.

"It does look like both sides will come away happy," said Drew Thompson, a China specialist at the Nixon Center in Washington.

The two leaders met in what will probably be their final summit, considering that Hu is due to end his 10-year stewardship next year. After a year of strife between the governments over economic, security and human rights issues, the summit was designed to stabilize what is considered the world's most important economic relationship.

Both leaders repeatedly emphasized their intentions to deepen their cooperation, even as they continue to disagree on many aspects of their nations' complex relationship. Obama reiterated that the United States does not intend to try to "contain" China, but hopes to benefit from its rapid and peaceful growth.

The White House, keen to show its concern about American jobs, announced $45 billion worth of U.S.-China business deals, which Obama said would produce 235,000 American jobs, many in manufacturing. In the centerpiece deal, China will buy 200 Boeing aircraft for $19 billion.

To help open its markets to U.S. businesses, China will modify regulations that give special benefits to "indigenous innovation," U.S. officials said. The Chinese also indicated that they would ease regulations that give an advantage to local firms in government procurement.

On the human rights issue, Obama spoke firmly. He said 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."

But Obama, who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, did not specifically discuss in public China's imprisonment of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, a human rights cause celebre. The poet-essayist is serving an 11-year sentence for penning a manifesto calling for the end of one-party rule and greater freedoms in China.

Hu, who did not respond when asked a human rights question during a news conference, later said he had technical difficulties in hearing the question. When asked again about the issue, he insisted that his country has made "enormous progress, recognized widely in the world."

But he also said China is a developing country at a "crucial stage of reform" and that "a lot needs to be done in China" regarding human rights. At the same time, he noted that other countries should adhere to the principle of noninterference in other nations' internal affairs.

A senior Obama administration official said Hu's acknowledgement was remarkable.

"It would be hard for me to recall a similar instance where a Chinese leader has made such an acknowledgement in a public setting like that," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was a sensitive issue.

Chinese officials formally agreed Wednesday to a U.S. proposal to hold regular contacts on human rights issues.

In visiting Washington, Hu was eager to strengthen his legacy by showing Chinese audiences that he was accorded full honors. In 2006, Hu was embarrassed at a White House summit when he was denounced during a lawn ceremony by a protester from the Falun Gong, a banned Chinese spiritual movement.

He was received on Wednesday morning at the White House with a 21-gun salute and by a color guard that included a fife and drum band in colonial American dress.

On Wednesday evening, he was feted with a state dinner at the White House.

Hu and Obama had a private dinner at the White House on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning, the Chinese president met with a group of executives from major U.S corporations and had a formal lunch at the State Department.

The day, however, was not without its awkward moments. A news conference was marked by long pauses because comments were not translated simultaneously, an arrangement the Chinese requested, the White House said.

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