BEIJING — President Barack Obama on Wednesday wraps up a three-day visit to China that's left him keenly aware of the limits of his administration's leverage over this economic powerhouse on issues from currency exchange rates to human rights.
Obama has little leverage over China, in part because the U.S. depends on the Chinese to finance the U.S. government's growing debt, and because of the perception in China, which for years was an economic nonentity, that the U.S. is troubled and China is ascendant.
Administration officials said that the China stop, part of a four-nation Asia tour that will conclude Thursday in South Korea, was a success because it laid the groundwork for a more focused U.S.-China alliance to tackle everything from global warming to nuclear weapons containment.
China gave no evident ground on the points at issue, however.
"The meetings and the focus from a substance standpoint really have been aimed at coordinating like never before on the key global issues that together are headline issues for the United States," said Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said: "I did not expect, and I can speak authoritatively for the president on this, that we thought the waters would part and everything would change."
Obama summed it up this way in a joint appearance Tuesday with President Hu Jintao: "The relationship between our two nations goes far beyond any single issue."
Hu and Obama announced potentially significant new agreements on advancing clean energy and scientific research. Both committed to work toward global warming initiatives and reiterated a mutual desire to contain the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
In two areas in which the United States wants to shift China's positions — valuation of the Chinese currency and the Chinese government's censorship practices and human rights abuses — no advances were announced, however.
The U.S. is the world's largest economy; China's the world's most populous nation, with the third largest gross domestic product. China has helped keep the American economy afloat through the recession. Its huge trade surplus with the United States — and the $800 billion worth of American government debt that it holds — is economically unsustainable and leaves the U.S. dependent on Beijing's financial favor, however.
Obama has called for China to stop undervaluing its currency and adopt a more market-based standard as one way to begin reducing the trade imbalance.
"I emphasized in our discussions, and have others in the region, that doing so based on economic fundamentals would make an essential contribution to the global rebalancing effort," Obama said.
Hu didn't mention currency policy in his public statement. Instead, he jabbed the U.S. for trade policies that he said held China back.
"I stressed to President Obama that under the current circumstances, our two countries need to oppose and reject protectionism in all its manifestations in an even stronger stand."
Obama also said he'd reiterated in private to Hu that there are certain "universal" human rights that should be available to all people, including a nation's ethnic and religious minorities.
Standing side by side with Hu, Obama mentioned Tibet, saying that while the U.S. recognizes it as part of China, the Chinese government should resume talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the government in exile.
Hu remained expressionless throughout Obama's remarks.
Other aspects of Obama's visit also were sobering. Even as he arrived Sunday night, human rights organizations reported that the Chinese government was rounding up and arresting dissidents to ensure that they couldn't reach out to the U.S.
The following day, Hu allowed Obama's town-hall meeting, the first such event for a Western leader in China, to air on local television in Shanghai — but not nationally.
Hu didn't agree to any news conferences at which reporters could ask questions. Chinese authorities even detained a Beijing-based reporter for CNN for displaying an "Oba-Mao" T-shirt that depicted Obama dressed as the late communist founder of the People's Republic of China.
While Obama is popular with many Chinese, the public's reception of him hasn't been nearly so effusive as the rock-star treatment he's gotten in other parts of the world.
There were no chants of "O-ba-ma!" at the town hall meeting. Instead, 400 students selected by authorities at their universities awaited his arrival in silence, sitting rigidly and displaying little emotion.
Shen Yi, an assistant professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that Chinese interest in Obama during last year's election wasn't about his stance on currency or human rights in China, but about a broader expectation that over time he'd somehow reshape America's role in the world.
That, the professor said, will take time to come into focus.
"The popularity of candidate Obama is mainly rooted in a simple idea: He will make a real change in the U.S., especially in foreign policy."
Despite the risks and shortcomings of the visit, Obama enjoyed colorful interactions and historic sights on his first visit to the nation of 1.3 billion people.
He toured Beijing's Forbidden City, long the seat of China's emperors, on Tuesday, wearing a leather jacket with fur trim, and described the grounds as "spectacular." The president and his entourage ascended 30 steps and went down another 30 into the courtyard. Then they walked up a steep stone stairway and entered the Tai He Dian, or "Hall of Supreme Harmony," built in 1420 and reconstructed in 1695.
Later, Obama attended a state dinner at which the music program included a rendition of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You," a recognition by the Chinese of one of Obama's favorite performers.
On Wednesday, Obama was to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and visit the Great Wall.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY