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Obama friendly but firm as Xi Jinping visits the White House

Chinese vice-president visits Washington for official meeting as US gets first look at man who will succeed leader Hu Jintao

Barack Obama has warned Beijing that it has to play by the same rules as other major powers within the world economy at a meeting with vice-president Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over the Chinese leadership next year.

US officials regard Xi’s visit to the US this week as an opportunity to size up the man who is expected to replace Hu Jintao as Communist party leader later this year and to succeed him as president in 2013.

Xi met Obama at the White House at a time when there is tension over the vast trade imbalance in favour of China, Beijing undervaluing its currency and the expanding military presence of both countries in the Asia-Pacific region as the two powers compete for influence.

In public remarks at his meeting with Xi, Obama said the US believes that a strong and prosperous China can help to bring stability and prosperity. But he sounded a warning on trade.

“We have tried to emphasise that because of China’s extraordinary development over the last two decades, with expanding power and prosperity also comes increased responsibilities. And so we want to work with China to make sure that everybody is working by the same rules of the road when it comes to the world economic system – and that includes ensuring that there is a balanced trade flow between not only the United States and China but around the world,” he said.

“It also means that on critical issues like human rights we will continue to emphasise what we believe is the importance of recognising the aspirations and rights of all people.”

Xi’s visit is largely seen within the administration as an opportunity to better know a man who is regarded in Washington as something of an enigma. The US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, recently observed that American officials “really don’t know that much about him”.

Daniel Russel, the head of China policy at the National Security Council, said the trip is principally “for us to learn more about him” and to allow Xi “to broaden his understanding of the United States”.

“Xi Jinping isn’t yet the No 1 official in China, so one likely wouldn’t expect him to be breaking new ground,” he said.

What little US officials do know leads them to conclude that Xi is more confident and comfortable in dealing with the west than Hu, and that he is willing to get beyond set talking points.

US officials also regard Xi as more open about the problems Beijing faces.

After a visit to China last year, the US vice-president Joe Biden said: “He genuinely is open about the nature and extent of their problems, what they’re going to have to deal with, short-term and long-term.”

Xi’s visit is heavily choreographed, with few public appearances and without any press conferences, to ensure he is not confronted by protests or awkward questions over Tibet or China’s veto of the the UN security council resolution on Syria. During Hu’s visit last year, the White House erected large screens on the lawn so the Chinese president would not have to see Americans protesting over China’s occupation of Tibet.

The US administration is taking the chance to press Xi on trade issues between the world’s two largest economies in part because it is a growing domestic political issue. Obama’s Republican rivals are accusing the president of failing to stand up to China over its undervalued currency, which makes its exports cheap. They also accuse Beijing of other unfair trade practices.

Several Republican congressional candidates have run attack adverts accusing the Democrats of exporting jobs to China. Last week, a candidate for the Senate, Pete Hoekstra, caused controversy by running an advert during the Super Bowl in which a Chinese woman rides a bicycle through a paddy field and says: “Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good”.

Tellingly, Biden took the US trade, commerce and agriculture secretaries in to one of his meetings with Xi.

The Chinese vice-president acknowledged US concerns before he arrived. In a written response to questions from the Washington Post, he said differences are inevitable.

“Frictions and differences are hardly avoidable in our economic and trade interactions. What is important is that we properly handle these differences through coordination based on equality, mutual benefit, mutual understanding and mutual accommodation. We must not allow frictions and differences to undermine the larger interests of our business cooperation,” he said.

“We have taken active steps to meet legitimate US concerns over IPR [intellectual-property rights] protection and trade imbalance, and we will continue to do so. At the same time, we hope the United States will take substantive steps as soon as possible to ease restrictions on high-tech exports to China and provide a level playing field for Chinese enterprises to invest in the United States.”

China has its own complaints, not least America’s shift of military resources to the Asia-Pacific region, including plans for a new military base in Australia. Xi is to meet the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, general Martin Dempsey, at the Pentagon which is concerned at China’s rapidly expanding military influence in Asia.

On Wednesday Xi is flying to Muscatine, Iowa to be reunited with a group of Americans he met during a visit in 1985 as a regional official in an agriculture mission. On that occasion he stayed with an ordinary family, sleeping in a room surrounded by the children’s Star Trek figures.

Xi told the Washington Post that visit had a profound effect on his view of the US.

“I was deeply impressed by America’s advanced technology and the hospitable and industrious American people. That visit drove home to me the importance of closer exchanges between our peoples and gave me a better understanding of China-US relations,” he said.

Then he goes on to Los Angeles where he will meet business leaders and visit a school teaching Chinese. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds