Aiming beyond mere rivalry, President Barack Obama declared Monday in his first visit to China that the U.S. and the Chinese carry a "burden of leadership" as he meets with President Hu Jintao to confront climate change, nuclear proliferation and other urgent global problems. Economic and trade tensions shadowed their talks.
Obama is strongly suggesting that China, now a giant in economic impact as well as territory, must take a bigger role on such issues as global warming. He is also prodding the Chinese on freedom and Internet controls.
"I will tell you, other countries around the world will be waiting for us," Obama said in an American-style town-hall discussion with Chinese university students in Shanghai, where he spent a day before flying to China's capital for a state visit with President Hu.
As China moves haltingly toward greater global activity, Obama said, "That is the burden of leadership that both of our countries now carry."
The town hall meeting showed how difficult it is for the governments to work together. The U.S. initially requested a larger venue and a live broadcast on a major network. In the end, Chinese officials put the event on the eastern fringes of the city. Only local Shanghai TV carried it live, though it was streamed on two popular Internet portals and on the White House's Web site, which is not censored.
Avoiding spats on economy
Eager to achieve a successful summit, the two leaders were likely to avoid public spats on economic issues. With America's budget deficit soaring to a yearly record of $1.42 trillion, China is the No. 1 lender to Washington and has expressed concern that the falling price of the dollar threatens the value of its U.S. holdings.
In the U.S., American manufacturers blame China's own low currency value for contributing to the loss of 5.6 million manufacturing jobs over the past decade. During that time, America's trade gap with China has soared.
Obama was greeted at Beijing's airport by Vice President Xi Jinping, a red carpet lined by soldiers in dress uniforms and a dusting of snow on the grass. He had brief talks and a private dinner with Hu on the graceful grounds of the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.
In brief remarks before the initial talks, Hu noted Obama's Shanghai meeting with students, calling the session "quite lively."
Obama smiled broadly throughout the welcoming remarks, then told Hu that "the world recognizes the importance of the U.S.-Chinese relationship" in tackling global problems.
The two were meeting again more formally on Tuesday, complete with the military pomp of a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People and a joint appearance before reporters. With sightseeing in Beijing's Forbidden City sandwiched in between, the two leaders' day was to end at a lavish state dinner in Obama's honor. Obama was spending Wednesday in Beijing as well before completing his weeklong Asia travels in South Korea.
As is now becoming familiar, Obama was full of compliments for China during the town hall, lauding its scientific achievements, rich history and astounding economic rise.
Warms words, polite nudges
As is also familiar, the president balanced the warm words with polite nudges in more sensitive territory, for instance on the need for Beijing to move toward a more consumer-driven economy and to improve human rights and freedoms for its people.
Even as he spoke, China continued its practice of cracking down on dissent ahead of major events, detaining dozens of activists and petitioners, according to friends, family members and a human rights group. International activists have urged Obama to talk tougher and more specifically in public about China's human rights record, but Obama again didn't do so in the town hall.
However, he was unexpectedly pointed on the question, chosen from more than 1,000 posed over the Internet to the U.S. Embassy, of the so-called "Great Firewall of China." The students at the event were chosen by party-connected school officials.
Speaking in the nation that has the world's largest population of Internet users and also some of the world's tightest limits over what people can see online, Obama said there's nothing to fear from tough criticism of political leaders and unfettered access to Internet information. Addressing China's communist leaders, he said the U.S. model — while sometimes annoying to him when he sees criticism — "makes me a better leader."
Obama's response drew cheers from China's online community. One blogger applauded the portal Netease for posting the transcript and leaving it up for 27 minutes — before it was excised.
Obama's dominant theme in China is that America's only potential superpower competitor shares a "burden of leadership."
The president has stressed with increasing urgency that if any progress is to be made on critical problems, China must decide to go beyond local and regional ambitions and its exploding economy and be a key player on the world stage. Beijing, the president suggests, must do more with its newfound clout.
‘A meeting of the minds’
The president bluntly said he hoped his third sit-down with Hu since he became president would help produce what he called "a meeting of the minds between myself and President Hu about how together the United States and China can show leadership."
Topmost on Obama's ambitious agenda with Hu is the so-far elusive search for global agreement on a new climate change pact, stymied by disagreement between rich nations like the U.S. and developing nations such as China. Wealthier countries want legally binding greenhouse-gas reduction targets for themselves as well as for energy-guzzling developing nations such as China, India and Brazil. Those poorer nations say they will set only nonbinding goals and they demand assistance to make the transition to harder targets.
Amid those differences, Obama and Hu are expected to announce new cooperation on a related but easier front: clean-energy projects. With China and the U.S. the world's two largest emitters of heat-trapping gases, Obama warned that "unless both of our countries are willing to take critical steps in dealing with this issue, we will not be able to resolve it."
Another key area for Obama is securing stronger Chinese backing for halting the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
Beijing has supported sterner sanctions against Pyongyang for its continued nuclear weapons program. And, as North Korea's last major ally and a key supplier of food and energy aid, China is a partner with key leverage in six-nation talks with the North over the issue. But on Iran, where China has significant economic ties, Beijing has appeared less willing to endorse a tougher approach to restrict Tehran's uranium enrichment and suspected pursuit of atomic bombs.