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 a 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) is expected succeed Hu Jintao as China’s president in 2013.
“I’m sure the American people welcome you,” Obama said.
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.
This week is essentially one big get-to-know-you tour, from the halls of power to the farmland of Iowa, which he visited as a lower-ranking government official in 1985. He will have access to many power brokers while in Washington, including Cabinet secretaries, leading lawmakers and, most of all, Biden, his host.
“We are not always going to see eye to eye,” Biden said as the day began with talks in the Roosevelt Room. “We are not always going to see things exactly the same, but we have very important economic and political concerns that warrant that we work together.”
The timing comes as the United States remains in dispute with China on multiple fronts.
Even as Xi was soaking in his welcome, the top U.S. military officer was pressed at a Senate hearing about alleged Chinese computer hacking. Joints Chief of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey said someone in China was responsible but he declined to blame the Chinese army for targeted electronic break-ins of U.S. government and corporate computer networks.
The United States accuses China of tolerating electronic theft and industrial espionage, but U.S. officials are reluctant to tie those crimes directly the Chinese government. When Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would be seeing Xi and asked advice on what to say, Dempsey quipped: “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
The U.S. is also deeply at odds with China and Russia for their vetoes of a tough U.N. Security Council resolution this month that called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside. Washington accuses Beijing of protecting rogue regimes such as Syria, where the bloodshed rages daily.
In Xi’s presence, Obama passed on answering a reporter’s questions about Syria.
More broadly, China and the U.S. are also increasingly rivals in the Asia-Pacific region, with Washington’s traditional alliances competing with China’s economic and cultural influence. China sees the U.S. as encouraging skepticism and dissent among neighbors in the region while trying to undermine communist rule by encouraging civil liberties and human rights causes.
On Iran, China shares U.S. alarm about a possible Iranian nuclear bomb but has blocked consideration of the toughest international sanctions, including an international embargo on Iranian oil. China is Iran’s largest customer for oil.
White House spokesman Jay Carney assured that Obama privately brings up “all of these issues” of concerns with Xi and other Chinese leaders.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington, Anne Gearan, Donna Cassata and Robert Burns contributed to this report.