By BEN FELLER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The man destined to be China's next leader won an extraordinary welcome across Washington on Tuesday, a finely scripted opening to one of the world's most important relationships. Trading kind words of cooperation, President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping also spoke directly about human rights and worsening foreign crises.
Everything about the day reflected just how much China and the United States need each other, no matter what their differences, given their economic and military might and global influence. Xi got a lengthy Oval Office audience with Obama, an elaborate reception at the State Department, full military honors at the Pentagon, a gathering with chief business executives and an invitation for dinner at Vice President Joe Biden's house.
At the center of it was a president seeking four more years and the man expected to lead China for the next decade. Xi, whose full name is pronounced shee jeen-ping, currently is vice president and is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as head of China's Communist Party late this year and become president in 2013.
"I'm sure the American people welcome you," Obama said.
The president and vice president, though, both sent stern messages to China about showing more responsibility economically, a sign of simmering frustration over currency and trade policies. Obama said China must play by "the same rules of the road" as the world, and Biden warned Xi that cooperation "can only be mutually beneficial if the game is fair."
All the symbolism and protocol were intended to pay dividends in the coming decade and to reciprocate for Biden's warm stay in China last year.
There were no obvious breakthroughs — Xi is not empowered yet anyway — but the stature he is set to assume was enough to draw rare attention.
Never before, for example, has the Pentagon heralded a visiting vice president the way Xi was. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta greeted Xi on the steps of the Pentagon's River Entrance, facing the Potomac, as U.S. troops held an honor cordon for Xi. He got a 19-gun salute.
The relationship between the nations is complex. It is strengthened by their joint need for international stability and economic growth, yet tested by currency disputes, China's limits on basic human freedoms, trade imbalances and growing military tensions.
Obama and Xi said they would maintain a relationship based on the traditional diplomatic speak of mutual interests and respect. They kept their focus on a diverse and cooperative agenda, although Obama did push China on human rights and the importance to recognize the "rights of all people."
In a separate setting, Xi later defended his country's rights records over the past 30 years but added: "Of course there's always room for improvement on human rights." His comments at the State Department luncheon were similar to those made by Hu during a state visit to Washington a year ago.
Leaders of foreign policy, academics and the business worlds were invited to see Xi and hear him speak; a string quartet greeted them upon arrival.
For Xi, the itinerary was carefully negotiated to convey high-level significance and minimize the chance of making news or, worse, any gaffe.
Neither he nor Obama took questions.
Outside the gates of the White House, a few hundred protesters marched, waving Tibetan flags and calling for a free Tibet. Underscoring the sensitivity of the rights issues among China's critics, they held signs proclaiming, "Xi Jinping: Tibet will be free." They shouted "Stop lying to the world."
Inside the Oval Office, Obama assured Xi: "It is absolutely vital that we have a strong relationship with China." The visiting leader smiled and looked at ease in his first formal meeting with the U.S. president.
Xi said that his meetings in Washington, to be followed by stops in the Iowa heartland and then California, were aimed not just at better political ties but a deeper friendship with the American people. By the end, he may even take in a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, said a smiling Obama, a hoops fan himself.
Xi is known for being adept at forming personal connections, particularly in comparison with Hu, who has often appeared stiff and staid around Obama. In comments at the State Department, Xi cited a couple of old proverbs and even a Chinese pop song to make his point about the ever-changing US-China relationship.