By Sam Youngman - 01/20/11 02:09 AM EST
President Obama broached the touchy issue of human rights with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday, but the overwhelming focus of the Sino-U.S. summit was the growing economic dependency between the two countries.
Obama, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, made a point of raising human rights in a welcoming ceremony at the White House for Hu, but turned into the salesman-in-chief during a joint press conference.
The administration hailed $45 billion in business deals announced during the Hu summit, which continued Wednesday evening at a state dinner honoring the Chinese president.
The agreements, which include a commitment from China to purchase 200 Boeing aircraft worth $19 billion, are critical to a president attempting to wrestle down a 9.4 percent unemployment rate largely through an emphasis on increased exports.
They also are of tremendous importance to a president trying to improve relations with business ahead of a reelection campaign next year. Obama and Hu met with business leaders on Wednesday, and several corporate titans were expected to attend the state dinner, including the CEOs of General Electric, Walt Disney and Coca-Cola.
“From machinery to software, from aviation to agriculture, these deals will support some 235,000 American jobs,” said Obama, who appeared thrilled to announce the business deals. “And that includes many manufacturing jobs. So this is great news for America’s workers.”
Overall, deals announced during Hu’s visit would benefit 70 companies in 12 states, a senior administration official said.
“As President Hu and his government refocuses the economy on expanding domestic demand, that offers opportunities for U.S. businesses, which ultimately translates into U.S. jobs,” Obama said.
Still, while much of the focus of the talk Wednesday was on business, Obama did seek to press Hu on human rights while being mindful of the critical role China plays in the U.S. and global economies.
Speaking to the president of a country that holds more than $1.5 trillion in U.S. debt, Obama was polite but candid in calling out Hu for mistreating the Chinese people, calling it a “source of tension” between the two countries.
Obama said that while China and the U.S. have different cultures and different histories, the U.S. believes that core human rights “transcend cultures.”
“I have been very candid with President Hu about the issue,” Obama said.
The president said that “there has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years” on the matter, and Obama said that it is his hope that 30 years from now Americans will see “further evolution and further change.”
The summit provided some uncomfortable moments for Hu, whom business representatives ahead of the meeting said had put great stock in having a successful visit with Obama.
Groups protesting China’s treatment of minorities clamored outside the White House, chanting anti-Hu slogans throughout the day.
During the press conference, when a reporter for The Associated Press asked Hu whether it is the business of the U.S. to weigh in on how China treats its people, Hu at first did not answer, saying he did not hear the translated question.
Hu acknowledged that “a lot still needs to be done in China on human rights,” even as he warned Obama that their candid exchange on the issue should be based in mutual respect and a “principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”
“China is always committed to the promotion and protection of human rights,” Hu said.
Several prominent lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), chose not to attend Wednesday night’s state dinner.
Asked about those absences, Hu deferred, saying, “who will attend, who will not attend, and for what reasons, I think President Obama is certainly in a better position to answer that question.”
Obama also sought to reassure his Chinese audience that the U.S. is not trying to contain Chinese growth.
Obama said that China’s rise is “potentially good for the world” if a stronger China is a responsible actor on the world stage.
“We just want to make sure that that rise occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict either in the region or around the world,” Obama said.