Pomp, pledges and a reminder for China about human rights

Obama sends an early 'candid' message to Bejing during opening ceremony
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As President Barack Obama welcomed Hu Jintao of China to the White House yesterday with pledges of a new era of cooperation between their countries, he punctured the pomp of an opening ceremony on the south lawn with a pointed reminder of the world's dismay at Beijing's reluctant record on human rights.

Mr Obama specifically raised Tibet at a press conference, saying that the US recognises that it is a part of Chinese territory, but is urging Beijing to engage in fresh talks "to resolve concerns and differences including the preservation of the religious and cultural identity" of the Tibetan people.

"We have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights. That we think are very important that transcend cultures. I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues," Mr Obama said.

The comments came after Mr Obama and President Hu stood alongside each other on a podium as a 21-gun salute marked the start of an intricately choreographed formal visit by the Chinese leader that was to culminate with a star-studded state dinner last night. Barely had the day's serious business begun, including talks between the two heads of state, than the White House was unveiling a $45bn (£28bn) new export agreement with China that it said would protect 235,000 American jobs.

Yet behind the veneer of mutual friendship, a multitude of tensions lurked not just in the area of human rights but also economic competition, arsenal-building and international diplomacy.

While Mr Obama was already going further than his predecessor, George Bush, to accord Mr Hu full honours in Washington – last night's occasion was to be the first state dinner for a Chinese leader in 13 years – there could be no ignoring the gaps between them on human rights. While Mr Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mr Hu leads a country that has this year's winner of the prize, Liu Xiaobo, behind bars.

"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," Mr Obama said in his remarks at the opening ceremony.

Saying that he saw his visit as an opportunity to "open a new chapter in cooperation as partners", President Hu also sharpened the atmosphere by serving notice that China and America will not see eye to eye on everything and should exercise "mutual respect" of each other's positions.

Addressing a question from a US reporter, Mr Hu struck a flexible tone on human rights. "A lot still has to be done in China," Mr Hu said. "We are also willing to continue to have exchanges and dialogue with other countries in terms of human rights." But he added: "We do believe that we must also take into account different national circumstance when it comes to universal human rights."

Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, and Jackie Chan, the action hero, were among a bevy of celebrity guests set to partake of the glitz and glamour that were to mark the state dinner in the White House last night. John Boehner, the new House Speaker, declined to attend.

The White House sought to emphasise the significance of the new exports package that was assembled ahead of the state visit, saying that China had agreed to purchases American goods made in 12 different US states. It also sealed deals to buy 200 Boeing aircraft and open a joint venture to develop and build hybrid buses for China.

Protocol chiefs at the White House were straining to avoid potential gaffes. There were red faces in 2006, the last time Mr Hu was in the US capital, when an announcer identified the Chinese national anthem as belonging instead to Taiwan, a country that Beijing still considers part of its territory. There was embarrassment on the same occasion when Mr Hu was loudly heckled at the White House by a protester.

It wasn't clear whether the Chinese leader was aware of roughly 200 Free Tibet protesters gathered from the early hours yesterday and noisily chanting their objections to his presence on American soil from a small park just across from the White House.

The key issues

Currency and trade

If the only bone of economic contention between the US and China was Beijing's effort to hold its currency artificially low, then the latest summit would proceed along usual lines. China is holding down the yuan in order to make its exports more competitive on the world stage and turbo-charge the country's industrialisation.

The US says that is unfair, but knows it has more to lose from trying to punish China. Recently, though, the currency issue has been joined by a series of other skirmishes. An increasing number of trade disputes are before the World Trade Organisation, the US is concerned about what it calls state subsidies of Chinese industry, and Beijing recently slashed exports of so-called "rare earth minerals" used in the tech industry, causing a leap in prices.

Stephen Foley

Arms race?

Alarm bells were set off in Washington earlier this month when China began test flights of a new stealth fighter jet, dubbed the J-20, during a rare visit to the country by the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Some saw the timing of the tests as provocative and warned of a new arms race between the US and China. At a press conference in Washington, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the US had known about the J-20 and reiterated that China was within its rights to develop new, hi-tech weaponry. He added, however, that Pentagon analysis suggested that much of China's new hardware seemed to be coming on stream with the US in mind.

David Usborne


Hillary Clinton made clear yesterday that while there may be differences with China on issues like human rights, they should not get in the way of more coherence on confronting international threats. The US continues to express frustration over China's reluctance to apply more pressure on North Korea over its nuclear ambitions and its recent provocations of South Korea. That includes respecting UN sanctions on Pyongyang.

The US similarly wants China to demonstrate that it is implementing the trade sanctions on Iran that it supported last year in the UN Security Council to counter the nuclear threat from that country. Ms Clinton said publicly this week that some Chinese entities are flouting them. DU

China holds the whip hand in this relationship

David Usborne