BEIJING – President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to play down points of tension between their two nations Wednesday, unveiling a flurry of agreements on climate change, military co-operation and trade, while casting their own burgeoning relationship as candid and productive.
Yet areas of discord between the world’s largest economies still bubbled to the surface. Obama pressed Xi on human rights and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while Xi repeatedly reminded his American guest that his nation wants to be seen as an equal to the United States.
“I believe that President Xi and I have a common understanding on how the relationship between our two countries should move forward,” Obama said as he closed a three-day trip to China. “Where we have disagreements, we will be candid about our intentions, and we will work to narrow those differences where possible.”
The two leaders addressed reporters in a rare joint news conference for the Chinese leader, whose government keeps tight control on media in the country. Xi first appeared to ignore a question posed to him from an American reporter who asked about restrictions placed on U.S. news organizations operating in the country, then later suggested it was unfavourable coverage that had led to the crackdowns.
Obama has made significant personal investments in his relationship with Xi, including a two-day summit at a California estate last year. U.S. officials have seen Xi as a potentially new kind of Chinese leader, with closer ties to the U.S. than other Chinese officials – he spent time in Iowa as an exchange student – and an ease with public appearances that eluded his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Yet Xi has consolidated power since taking office, deepened China’s provocative maritime disputes with its neighbours and stands accused of continuing cyberattacks against the United States. U.S. officials have new concerns over the potential for a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and are warily watching Beijing strengthen ties with Moscow as the West distances itself from Russia.
For its part, Beijing remains skeptical of Obama’s intentions in Asia, seeing his efforts to bolster U.S. economic ties in the region as a way of countering China’s rise. Obama’s domestic political weakness, particularly following the Democrats’ defeats in last week’s midterm elections, has also sparked questions in China about whether the U.S. president can deliver on potential international agreements.