Obama, Hu air divides but seek trust

The two Presidents swapped the dry language of diplomacy for a state dinner.

Washington: US President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao sparred on Wednesday over human rights but smoothed over sharp differences and a dearth of breakthroughs by vowing to work to build trust.

On a long-awaited state visit, Hu made the unusual comment for a Chinese President that "a lot" remained to be done on freedoms in China, but pointedly did not share Obama`s definition of universal human rights.

Later, the two Presidents swapped the dry language of diplomacy for a gala state dinner, sprinkled with stars like action hero Jackie Chan and pop diva Barbra Streisand, in White House rooms bathed in purple and red lights.

"While it is easy to focus on our differences, in cultures and perspective, let us never forget the values that our people share," Obama said in a toast to Hu, pointing to mutual hard work, sacrifice and love of family.

Earlier, trumpets sounded and a 21-gun salute blasted over Washington as Hu arrived at a White House draped with US and Chinese flags, in the most sumptuous pageantry a US president can muster. But tough talking soon ensued.

At a frank press conference, there were few signs the leaders had ended disagreements on the rate of China`s yuan currency, access to Chinese markets or strategic issues, despite an earlier announcement of tens of billions of dollars in US export deals.

But both sides promised to seek further cooperation on the world`s most pressing issues and Obama welcomed China`s rise as a key power and looked forward to an era of "friendly competition”.

The President also candidly laid out US differences with China, demanding a level playing field for US firms, said the yuan was "undervalued" and encouraged dialogue with the Dalai Lama`s representatives over Tibet.

Obama, under pressure because his successor as Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is in a Chinese jail, acknowledged China had a different political system than America, but said he would not shirk from raising rights issues.

"We have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly -- that we think are very important and that transcend cultures," he said.

"I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues."

Later, a senior US official said that Obama had personally raised the case of Liu, jailed in 2009 on subversion charges, though did not detail Hu`s response.

Hu at first did not answer a US reporter`s question about human rights, but prompted to respond later, said it had not been translated for him, and launched into a detailed defence of China`s record.

He said China had made "enormous progress" on human rights, but argued his was a vast nation with many social and economic development problems.

"We do believe that we also need to take into account the different national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights," he said, but admitted "a lot needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."

Earlier, US officials revealed that China would announce a mammoth USD 45 billion in export deals with Washington, including a purchase of 200 Boeing passenger jets worth an estimated USD 19 billion.

The order will bolster Obama`s bid to convince Americans that his ambitious foreign policy can have a domestic payoff in the wake of the deepest economic crisis in decades, as officials said the deals would support 235,000 US jobs.

And as both sides sought to enhance economic ties, Obama hosted a meeting with Hu and top US business leaders, including executives from Microsoft, Motorola, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, Coca Cola, Boeing and HSBC.

Obama said he hoped Beijing and Washington could ease recent trade frictions and break free of "old stereotypes”.

In a sign of the political sensitivity of Hu`s visit, top members of Congress, including John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, declined invitations to attend the state dinner.

Democratic US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meanwhile branded Hu a "dictator”, then withdrew the remark.

Obama also used the press conference to say that both he and Hu wanted North Korea to halt "further provocations”, and agreed that total denuclearisation of the peninsula was the "paramount goal”.

In a joint statement, both sides expressed concern at North Korea`s uranium enrichment program, the first time that Beijing had made such concerns public.

Bureau Report

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