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Obama stresses economic roles with China's expected new leader

By the CNN Wire Staff
February 15, 2012 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
  • NEW: Xi to meet congressional leaders and speak at the Chamber of Commerce
  • President Obama raises human rights concerns with China's vice president
  • Xi is expected to become the next Chinese president
  • Xi is on a five-day visit to the United States

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama welcomed China's presumptive next leader at the White House Tuesday but also set a firm tone for future relations between the two world powers.

The meeting with Obama highlighted a day of top-level Washington diplomacy for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who also met with Vice President Joe Biden and spoke at the State Department.

On Wednesday, Xi will meet with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill and deliver a major policy address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as he continues his five-day visit.

At the Oval Office meeting Tuesday, Obama said that with China's meteoric rise as an economic powerhouse came a responsibility to ensure balanced trade flows, referring to China's trade surpluses.

The president also raised the delicate issue of human rights as a critical area of concern for the United States.

"We've tried to emphasize that because of China's extraordinary development over the last two decades, that with expanding power and prosperity also comes increased responsibilities," Obama said while sitting next to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office.

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"We want to work with China to make sure everyone is working by the same rules of the road when it comes to the world economic system," he added.

For his part, Xi said the main purpose of his visit was to work to strengthen U.S.-Chinese relations and build a "cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interests."

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The trip is an opportunity for Xi, who is expected to be the Asian giant's next Communist Party leader and president, to burnish his credentials. President Hu Jintao undertook a similar visit 10 years ago as he was being groomed for the top job.

It also gave U.S. officials chance to size up Xi. His meeting with Obama lasted almost 90 minutes, which was longer than planned, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

According to Carney, Obama said the meeting ran long "because of the importance of the relationship and cooperation in dealing with the range of challenges that" the two countries face.

In welcoming Xi earlier, Vice President Joe Biden said the United States and China had one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. But the two countries, he said, were not always going to see eye to eye.

"We saw this in the recent U.N Security Council debate about Syria where we strongly disagreed with China and Russia's veto of a resolution against the unconscionable violence being perpetrated by the Assad regime," Biden said.

Xi, who is expected to become the leader of China's ruling Communist Party later this year, said he looked forward to in-depth and candid talks.

He also said he hoped to engage with a broad section of the American people.

But beneath the carefully choreographed presentation of the high-profile meetings lies a range of contentious issues on which Xi has little incentive to give ground, including trade and China's growing military presence.

"I think he's going to be tough with a smile on his face," said James McGregor, senior counselor for the communications firm APCO Worldwide in China. "He's gonna appear to be a very friendly man. But he has to be tough because he's still talking to an audience back here."

The subject of Xi's trip and what it portends for U.S.-Chinese relations in the coming years has received heavy coverage in state-run media in China.

"The U.S. has never met a competitor like China before," the Global Times, an English-language newspaper run by the Communist Party, said in an editorial published Monday that noted China's global clout in manufacturing and exports.

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The Obama administration, under pressure from stubbornly high unemployment figures in an election year, has already taken steps concerning China's role in global trade.

Obama mentioned China by name when he announced in his State of the Union address last month that he was creating a trade enforcement unit to bring cases against other countries. There is also persistent tension over China's efforts to control the level of its currency, the renminbi, which U.S. officials say makes it undervalued.

Carney told reporters Tuesday that the currency issue is routinely raised in any meeting with Chinese leaders.

Xi, 58, is very well versed in these issues, according to Jon Huntsman, the former Republican presidential hopeful who was U.S. ambassador to China between 2009 and 2011.

"He's gone out of his way in recent years to bone up economics and trade, knowing full well that these are the issues that are going to determine whether or not the United States and China are able to get through the years to come," Huntsman said.

Chinese officials are aware of U.S. concerns, but Xi and other leaders face the challenge of keeping China's hundreds of millions of workers content as economic growth starts to ease from the torrid levels of recent years.

Policy makers in Beijing are grappling with how to tackle rapidly rising prices and the widening gap between rich and poor.

"I want a job," said Xie Yingling, an unemployed welder in the coastal province of Fujian, where Xi used to be governor. "Our local economy is just bad. I find even a bowl of noodles too expensive here."

Xi's engagements in the United States began Monday with a dinner in Washington attended by former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.

He was given a less cordial welcome by activists advocating Tibetan independence, who started unfurling a banner on Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington Monday afternoon. The activists were detained by the police before being released.

On Tuesday, several hundred protesters chanting for a free Tibet gathered the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Xi and Biden met with business leaders. Calling for Tibetan freedom, the protesters waved flags, carried signs and voiced their message through a bull horn.

Beijing has been struggling in recent weeks to contain unrest among ethnic Tibetans in the southwestern province of Sichuan. It has sent additional security forces to the region after Tibetan protesters set themselves on fire and clashed with police to express frustration with Chinese rule.

After Washington, Xi will travel Wednesday to Iowa, a state he first visited as a local official in the 1980s.

He is visiting the United States amid the rhetoric and political uncertainty of presidential election campaigning. But upheaval is also under way in China through the leadership transition that is set to result in Xi's taking charge later this year.

With about 70% of the country's top 200 officials expected to be swapped out during the process, Huntsman said Xi is "stepping into the forefront of China's political leadership structure at a time of enormous change."

CNN's Jethro Mullen, Tom Cohen, Stan Grant, Greg Seaby and Moni Basu contributed to this report.

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