Obama's remarks on Tibet tempered by praise for China

 

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama made strident comments about his host's human rights record yesterday, but tempered his remarks with praise of Beijing's growing economic sophistication and support for its efforts to reunite with Taiwan.

At a media event - not a press conference as no questions were allowed - in the Great Hall of the People, both leaders were wearing similar dark suits and red ties, although their body language did not suggest a close friendship.

However, the message of closer co-operation was clear on issues such as the economy, climate change, energy and the nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea.

"I spoke to President Hu about America's bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights," Mr Obama said. "We do not believe that these principles are unique to America but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities."

It has been a difficult trip for Mr Obama. The balance of power between the US and China has altered. China has taken a lead position in helping to bail out the world economy and, as America's largest foreign creditor, China is keen to match its financial muscle with political influence.

"China's partnership has proven critical in our efforts to pull ourselves out of the worst recession for generations," Mr Obama added.

While the Nobel peace laureate has tried to encourage his hosts into allowing greater press freedom, he has also had to be careful not to be seen to be trying to interfere in domestic politics, something the Chinese government finds intolerable.

At the same time, he has had to deal with domestic pressure to push Beijing on its yuan currency. Americans believe the low value of the yuan is causing global imbalances.

This makes Chinese goods cheaper abroad, which benefits its exporters. This however presents political difficulties in the US where American factories are closing at a rate not seen since the Great Depression.

Mr Hu did not specifically mention the Chinese currency, but Mr Obama gave his own reading of this issue. "I was pleased to note the Chinese commitment made in past statements to move toward a more market-oriented exchange rate over time."

The president alluded to that complexity when he said: "The relationship between our two nations goes far beyond any single issue."

On the political front, he was candid. In what is a noteworthy action in itself, Mr Obama urged China to engage in dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, while standing alongside Mr Hu. The Chinese despise the Dalai Lama as a "splittist" who is not to be trusted.

He tempered his call for talks with the Dalai Lama with the statement that the United States accepted Tibet as part of China, a significant signal.

Mr Obama did not meet the Dalai Lama when he was in Washington in early October, but the Dalai Lama has said they may meet after Mr Obama returns from China.

When the biggest economy in the world meets what will soon be the world's second biggest economy, there are sure to be points of difference. In this instance, the stumbling blocks were the undervalued yuan and a protectionist stance by the US.

"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," said Mr Hu, who read out his statement first on a podium bedecked with Chinese and US flags.

This refers to special duties of 35 per cent on Chinese-made tyre imports in September and a number of other tariffs on Chinese goods, which have fuelled growing trade tensions in various sectors.

The two leaders said they agreed on restarting the collapsed six-nation effort to make the Korean peninsula nuclear-free, which the Chinese said was essential to "peace and stability in northeast Asia".

After the event, Mr Obama went to visit the Forbidden City, the ancient imperial palace at the city's heart. He said it was "magnificent" and hoped to return with his wife Michelle and their daughters next time.