With Hu, Obama more direct about US expectations of China

Obama and Hu, at a joint news conference Wednesday, stressed benefits of US-China cooperation. But Obama also urged 'level playing field' for US firms, as Hu stressed principle of 'mutual respect.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama gestures during his joint news conference with China's President Hu Jintao, Wednesday, Jan. 19, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

President Obama and China's President Hu Jintao stressed the importance of increased US-China cooperation, for their countries and for the world, at the two leaders’ lengthiest public appearance of Mr. Hu’s state visit to Washington.

But Mr. Obama, at an unusually long White House press conference Wednesday, also put on display his administration’s more assertive approach to China. From a raised platform in the White House East Room and with Hu at his side, Obama said a continued rise in China’s currency “is something we’ll be looking for,” while “there has to be a level playing field for American companies operating in China.”

On human rights – an issue Obama had not emphasized in his previous seven meetings with Hu – the US president reminded the Chinese leader that the universal rights America values and promotes around the world are also “recognized in the Chinese constitution.” In addition, he referred specifically to the Dalai Lama and called for “continued dialogue” between Chinese and Tibetan officials.

Obama’s friendly but direct tone stands in contrast to what some critics see as his accommodating – even obsequious – approach to the Chinese leader during his November 2009 visit to Beijing. (Obama raised eyebrows by pointedly declining to see the Dalai Lama before that visit, and by participating in a “town hall meeting” in China with hand-picked Communist Party youths.)

But since that visit, the administration decided that bending over backward for China was not going to yield the progress on international issues that it sought, say China experts in the US. The result was a shift to a more assertive US posture, notably through a reinvigoration last year of the US presence in Southeast Asia and in relations with Japan and South Korea.

“The US has made its point,” says Michael Green, a US-China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who was a special national security assistant to President George W. Bush. “Both sides want out of this a more stable relationship for 2011, and arguably, 2012,” he adds – a year when China will have its next leadership transition, with Hu leaving office, and when Obama is expected to seek reelection.

Echoing themes that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled in a speech at the State Department Friday, Obama said enhanced US-China cooperation and trust are good for the US, good for China, and good for the world. He said US exports to China have already created more than half a million American jobs, and he said rising exports to China and new business deals between the two countries – the administration announced $45 billion in joint ventures Wednesday – will “support” nearly a quarter-million US jobs.

The relationship is good for China, Obama said, because it has provided an environment in which China could develop and “raise millions out of poverty.” China has been the beneficiary of “decades of stability in Asia, made possible by America’s forward presence in Asia,” Obama said.

Last, Obama said cooperation between the two countries is good for the world: He cited China’s agreement on stronger international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program last year, and noted on North Korea that the US and China “worked together to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”

Hu also lauded cooperation between the two global giants, but his emphasis was on “mutual respect” – a long-held Chinese priority that leaves no room for what is seen as foreign “interference” in China’s internal affairs. US-China cooperation would grow, he said, as long as “we respect each others’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, and development interests.”

Implicit in those three conditions, experts say, are China’s sensitivities over Tibet, Taiwan, and the rights of “minorities,” including pro-democracy dissidents.

Hu at first seemed to choose to leave unanswered an American reporter’s question on human rights. But when it became clear that the technical problems that plagued the two-language press conference had caused him not to hear the query, Hu said, “Certainly I am in a position to answer that question.” He gave a long answer in which he said that China, despite its “context” as a developing country with an enormous and diverse population, has made “enormous progress recognized widely in the world.”

Still, he acknowledged, “a lot remains to be done in China on human rights.” China is willing to engage in a discussion on human rights, Hu said, but from a “principle of noninterference in each other’s affairs.”

The focus on human rights came as some members of Congress said they would not attend Wednesday night’s White House state dinner in Hu’s honor. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D), who on Tuesday referred to Hu as a “dictator,” said he would not attend. House majority leader John Boehner (R) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) also said they would forego the dinner but would meet with Hu on Thursday.

Wednesday's press conference also included what might be called a “teachable moment” on the US political system for the sizable Chinese delegation. With Hu looking on, Obama was asked about prospects that the former Republican governor he named as ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman of Utah, might end up his opponent in the 2012 presidential race.

Obama said Ambassador Huntsman, who sat before him, has done a “terrific job for the United States.” He added that it was a “strength, not a weakness” to have people from different parties representing the US government abroad.

The president added that if Huntsman – who recently hinted at an interest in the 2012 race – did run, he was not sure that “having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

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