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Obama welcomes Hu by urging partnership, respect for human rights

By Debbi Wilgoren, Nia-Malika Henderson and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 10:37 AM

President Obama welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House Wednesday with warm words about cooperation and sober reminders of the high stakes of the relationship between the two superpowers and the global importance of universal freedoms.

"We have an enormous stake in each other's success," Obama said. "...Nations, including our own, will be more prosperous and more secure when we work together."

In his remarks, Hu said he hoped to "increase mutual trust" between China and the U.S. during his visit, and build a "comprehensive" friendship for the 21st century. "

Our cooperation as partners should be based on mutual respect," Hu said, through an interpreter. "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."

In a clear reminder of U.S. concerns about China's human right's record, Obama told Hu 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."

The Chinese leader arrived on the south lawn of the White House in a black limousine festooned with the American and Chinese flags. Honor guards from the four military services stood at attention in dress uniforms, a military band played patriotic tunes and there was a 21-gun salute.

Among the hundreds of dignitaries and onlookers waving American and Chinese flags was Obama's younger daughter, Sasha, who was there with her fourth-grade classmates from Sidwell Friends School. The youngsters are studying China in social studies, White House staffers said, and came to the welcoming ceremony as a field trip, of sorts.

Hu is to spend much of the rest of the day in substantive talks on security, economic and political issues. He and Obama will hold a joint news conference at 1 p.m.

Hu's visit to the United States brings him face to face with an Obama administration that has grown more hard-nosed about the course of what is arguably the most important relationship the United States maintains with a foreign power.

"This relationship is going to, in many ways, determine the peace and stability and prosperity of the 21st century," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told NBC's "Today" show Wednesday morning.

"We want to see more cooperation on the economic front. We want to see more cooperation dealing with the very thorny problem of North Korea...We have to chart a steady course and stay on it, and never forget that we stand for American interests and American values."

Hu landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday afternoon and had a rare private dinner hours later with Obama. Both Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner were in attendance.

On Wednesday, as Congress continues a debate over Obama's health-care legislation, Hu and his aides will talk with Obama, Vice President Biden and other top U.S. officials about jobs , trade, currency issues and global security.

After a formal state dinner Wednesday night, Hu will meet congressional and business leaders in Washington on Thursday before heading to Chicago for a day.

The summit with Obama will probably be Hu's last as China's president; he is set to retire in 2012 and be replaced by the vice president, Xi Jinping. One tangible outcome of the summit is expected to be an invitation to Biden to go to China, which would set the scene for Xi to visit the United States, a rite of passage for those about to rise to the chairmanship of China's Communist Party.

Analysts say Hu is eager to burnish his legacy as a competent steward of China's ties with the United States. But during his brief stay in Washington, he will find an administration that views his government with significant misgivings.


Obama entered office expressing a sense that together the United States and China had an opportunity to solve many of the world's problems. Indeed, unique among presidents dating to Richard M. Nixon, Obama entered office striking a gentle tone toward China.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a trip to China in February 2009 that pressing the country on human rights issues "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises." In another sign of goodwill, Obama became the first president since the 1990s to fail to meet the Dalai Lama during one of the exiled Tibetan leader's trips to Washington.

But after a difficult summit in China that November, followed by clashes over climate change and a $6.4 billion weapons sales package to Taiwan in January 2010, the attitude among U.S. officials changed. Google's decision to pull out of China, along with its allegations that the Chinese government had hacked into one of its servers, added tension to the relationship. And Beijing's outraged opposition to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo further convinced U.S. officials that China was not interested in accommodating Western concerns over human rights.

In July, Clinton led a group of 11 Southeast Asian nations in resisting China's claims to the whole South China Sea. On the economic front, the Obama administration has slapped tariffs on Chinese goods and is challenging China's clean-energy policies. The administration has also directed the U.S. Export-Import Bank to take the unprecedented step of matching China's below-market-rate financing on important international business deals.

Tensions between the two countries also flared over how to handle the Korean Peninsula, with a senior Obama administration official accusing China of "enabling" North Korea's military brinksmanship. Over six months last year, North Korea launched two attacks on South Korea ¿ killing 48 military personnel and two civilians.

"Despite the positive rhetoric surrounding the Hu visit, the Obama administration today has a greater sense of the limits of cooperation with China," said Daniel Kliman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "The administration will of necessity continue to engage China on global and regional issues, but with diminished expectations."

More broadly, Kliman said, the administration has changed its strategy with China. Obama began his administration apparently thinking he could win support in Beijing by doing China favors. That notion seems to have dissipated. "These officials have since realized that you can't bank goodwill in Beijing," he said. "Rather, standing firm is the more effective approach."

The new attitude was in evidence last week. During the 2009 summit, as difficult as it was, the two sides released a long communique about U.S.-China relations. This time, it remains unclear whether there will be one -- despite indications that Hu wants one.

In 2009, Obama played down human rights issues by postponing his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Last week, Obama met with Chinese dissidents and human rights advocates and discussed how he could use U.S. leverage to push China to improve its record.

It was also apparent in speeches before Hu's visit by Clinton and Geithner, both of whom were blunt to the point of pugnacity. Near the end of his speech, Geithner put China on notice that if it wanted progress on its demands for a better investment climate in the United States and more access to U.S. technology, it had better bend to U.S. demands that China allow the value of its currency to rise and open its markets to U.S. firms. In the past, U.S. officials had avoided such threats.

Clinton, who once trod gently on the question of pushing a human rights agenda, gave a full-throated defense Friday of U.S. values and put the Chinese on notice that it would figure importantly in the future, as well.

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