WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed China on Wednesday to improve its human rights record and let its currency float freely, delivering pointed messages on key U.S. priorities even as he rolled out a lavish welcome for Chinese President Hu Jintao in China's first state visit since 1997.
The leaders of the world's two largest economies, meeting at the White House, pledged mutual cooperation on a daunting array of global issues.
They announced $45 billion in deals for U.S. exports to China, including 200 Boeing airplanes. They discussed matters ranging from economic development to containing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran and keeping the peace in Sudan.
Hu was feted in an elaborate arrival ceremony, a star-studded State Department lunch and a lavish state dinner. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Yo Yo Ma and Barbra Streisand were among 225 anticipated dinner guests.
First lady Michelle Obama's office said the Chinese delegation had asked for a "quintessentially American" night. Jazz artists performed. Lobster, rib eye steak and apple pie were on the dinner menu.
But big underlying differences between the two powers, especially on currency and human rights concerns, were on display during a four-question joint press conference.
Obama, who's been criticized for hosting Hu while Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo languishes in a Chinese jail, said at the news conference that he'd been "very candid" with the Chinese president on the human rights issue.
Hu rarely addresses the question of China's human rights record in public, but he told a questioner that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."
He also defended China's commitment to protecting and promoting human rights, and spoke of "enormous progress."
"China is a developing country with a huge population . . . in a crucial stage of reform," he said. "We will continue our efforts to improve democracy and the rule of law in our country."
Neither leader spoke directly about Liu publicly, but a senior administration official who briefed reporters later on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive subject, confirmed that Obama brought up Liu's case specifically in private discussions with Hu. The official declined to characterize Hu's private comments.
The Chinese, Taiwanese, Tibetan and other human rights protesters gathered across the street were less impressed. They said Hu's remarks were meaningless and urged Obama to exert more pressure.
"It's a situational pleasantry," said Bob Yang, the president of an association promoting Taiwanese independence and democracy. "When he gets back to China he'll revert back to his old ways, which is not respecting freedom, human rights and democracy."
Obama was even blunter on the issue of China's currency, the yuan or renminbi. "The RMB is undervalued," the president said, using shorthand for the currency. "There has been movement, but not as fast as we want."
U.S. officials and business executives say that by keeping its currency exchange rate artificially low, China boosts its exports to the U.S. and other countries.
Hu's visit, which also includes a meeting with U.S. and Chinese business executives, a formal state dinner and a visit to Chicago, was meant to put Sino-American relations on steadier footing after a year of disputes over trade, security and North Korea.
Obama was asked by a reporter from state-controlled China Central Television if, "Deep in your heart do you really think that you can live comfortably with a constantly growing China?" The question reflected widespread suspicion among Chinese that the U.S. wants to contain their country, but Obama insisted he could, in fact, live with that.
China's rise is an economic opportunity, he said.
"We want to sell you all kinds of stuff," the Obama said. "We want to sell you planes, we want to sell you cars, we want to sell you software."
The $45 billion in deals announced by the White House — many long in negotiation — include an already completed $19 billion Chinese order for 200 Boeing aircraft, as well as export deals and joint ventures involving U.S. firms such as General Electric, Navistar and Caterpillar.
Obama said the deals would create 235,000 new U.S. jobs. China also agreed to allow U.S. firms more access to Chinese government procurement contracts and to take new steps to curb theft of intellectual property, such as software, he said.
Later, Vice President Joe Biden said he'd accepted an invitation to visit China and meet Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping, who's expected to succeed Hu as president late next year.
As Obama formally welcomed Hu at an elaborate arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House earlier Wednesday, Hu said he'd come to the U.S. to "increase mutual trust" between the two nations.
"We have an enormous stake in each other's success," Obama said of U.S. relations with the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy.
It was the eighth meeting between Obama and Hu.
Albert Keidel, a top Treasury Department expert on China from 2001 to 2004, said the visit had gone well from Hu's standpoint.
"He's basically on script to have this be a picture perfect state visit. One of the things you have to demonstrate is your ability to work with the United States as well as your ability to stand up to them," said Keidel, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In China, state media coverage of Hu's visit has made it clear that his presence at the White House, and the considerable attention it's drawn across the world, is seen by Beijing as yet more proof of China's rising clout. Or, as the Global Times put it on Wednesday, "World watches as giants meet."
(Tom Lasseter in Beijing and Kevin G. Hall in Washington contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Check out McClatchy's politics blog, Planet Washington
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog