WASHINGTON — Touching on a key source of tension between the U.S. and China, President Barack Obama greeted Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday by stressing the need for nations to observe universal human rights. Hu responded with a call for both countries to respect each other's core interests.
Obama welcomed Hu to the White House with full honors and a red-carpet greeting, marking the start of daylong meetings to address trade, security, and human rights issues that have been the cause of past strain between the two powers. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
"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," Obama said in his remarks.
China's human right's policies have caused strains between the rival powers, with the U.S. calling on China to release jailed dissidents, including Nobel peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was prevented from attending the Dec. 10 prize ceremony in the Norwegian capital.
Obama's tone was nonetheless friendly, welcoming China's rise as a global economic force. "We have an enormous stake in each other's success," he said.
Hu said the relationship between the two counties has grown to one of "strategic significance and global influence."
But he pointedly added: "China and the United States should respect each other's choice of development paths and each other's core interests."
By "core interests" Hu was referring to issues on which China will brook no challenge, such as its claim to the currently self-governing island of Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949, and to Tibet, which is already under China's control. U.S. leaders, including Obama, have irked China repeatedly by meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The state visit marked Hu's first trip to the U.S. since 2006, when his arrival ceremony was marred by protocol blunders including an outburst from a protester from the Falun Gong spiritual sect. No such missteps occurred Wednesday.
It follows an up and down two years in which an assertive China initially cold-shouldered the U.S. on climate change, did little to reel in its unpredictable ally North Korea and responded limply to U.S. pleas to mitigate trade imbalances. For its part, the U.S. riled China by selling arms to Taiwan and inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House.
Both sides are now setting a more positive tone.
Hu pulled up to the White House portico Wednesday as part of a highly choreographed arrival, complete with welcomes from the president, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives and a long line of Cabinet members and Chinese dignitaries.
Obama and Hu stood at attention as a military band played both national anthems. The Chinese anthem was properly announced as that of the "People's Republic of China," avoiding another gaffe committed during Hu's 2006 visit, when an announcer mistakenly used the official name of Taiwan. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
There was one unforeseen moment. Deborah Mullen, wife of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, fainted toward the end Hu's remarks. She was helped indoors by her husband. Navy Capt. John Kirby, Adm. Mullen's spokesman, says that Deborah Mullen quickly recovered and is "doing just fine."
The two leaders inspected troops on the White House South Lawn. They then approached a rope line where they shook hands and greeted a group of children and young people holding Chinese and U.S. flags, including Obama's 9-year-old daughter, Sasha. The students all attend Washington area schools with programs in China studies and Chinese language.
Obama and Biden then met with Hu in the Oval Office ahead of an expanded meeting that will include their respective staffs. At the top of the meeting, as the two leaders waited for photographers to capture the usual Oval Office handshake, Obama was overheard engaging in a typical conversation ice breaker: The weather.