Warm US welcome for China's next leader

The man destined to be China’s next leader won an extraordinary welcome across Washington in a finely scripted opening to one of the world’s most important relationships.

The man destined to be China’s next leader won an extraordinary welcome across Washington in a finely scripted opening to one of the world’s most important relationships.

Trading kind words of co-operation, President Barack Obama and Chinese vice president 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 needed each other, no matter what their differences, given their economic and military might and global influence.

Mr Xi got a lengthy Oval Office audience with Mr Obama, an elaborate reception at the State Department, full military honours at the Pentagon, a gathering with chief business executives and a dinner at Vice President Joe Biden’s house.

At the centre of it was a president seeking four more years and the man expected to lead China for the next decade. Mr Xi 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,” Mr Obama said.

All the symbolism and protocol were intended to pay dividends in the coming decade and to reciprocate for Mr Biden’s warm stay in China last year.

There were no obvious breakthroughs – Mr Xi is not yet empowered anyway – but the stature he is set to assume was enough to draw rare attention.

Never before, for example, had the Pentagon heralded a visiting vice president the way Mr Xi was. Defence secretary Leon Panetta greeted him on the steps of the Pentagon’s River Entrance, facing the Potomac, as US troops held an honour cordon for Mr Xi, who received 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.

Mr Obama and Mr 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 co-operative agenda, although Mr Obama did push China on human rights and the importance to recognise the “rights of all people”.

In a separate setting, Mr Xi later defended his country’s human 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 Mr Hu during a state visit to Washington a year ago.

Leaders of foreign policy, academics and the business worlds were invited to see Mr 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 minimise the chance of making news or, worse, any gaffe.

Neither he nor Mr Obama took questions.

Outside the gates of the White House, a few hundred protesters marched, waving Tibetan flags and demanding freedom for Tibet.

Inside the Oval Office, Mr Obama assured Mr 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 US president.

Mr Xi said 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.

He may even take in a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, said a smiling Mr Obama, a basketball fan himself.

This week is essentially a big get-to-know-you tour, from the halls of power to the farmland of Iowa, which Mr Xi visited as a lower-ranking government official in 1985.

He will have access to many power brokers while in Washington, including cabinet secretaries, leading politicians and, most of all, Mr Biden, his host.

The timing comes as the United States remains in dispute with China on multiple fronts.

Even as Mr Xi was soaking in his welcome, the top US military officer was pressed at a Senate hearing about alleged Chinese computer hacking. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey said someone in China was responsible but he would not blame China’s People’s Liberation Army for targeted electronic break-ins of US government and corporate computer networks.

The United States accuses China of tolerating electronic theft and industrial espionage, but US officials are reluctant to tie those crimes directly to the Chinese government.

When Republican senator Lindsey Graham said he would be seeing Mr Xi and asked advice on what to say, Gen Dempsey quipped: “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

The US is also deeply at odds with China and Russia for their vetoes of a tough United Nations Security Council resolution this month that called on Syrian president Bashar Assad to resign. Washington accuses Beijing of protecting rogue regimes such as that of Syria, where the bloodshed rages daily.

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