WASHINGTON – The United States Wednesday feted China's President Hu Jintao on a visit which quickly revealed the multi-billion dollar trade embrace between two powers sharply at odds over issues like human rights.
President Barack Obama immediately raised the importance of "universal rights" while honoring Hu with an elaborate state arrival ceremony at the White House. He said he and Hu could set the tone for the next 30 years.
Soon afterwards, US officials revealed that China would announce a mammoth 45 billion dollars in export deals with Washington, including a purchase of 200 Boeing passenger jets worth an estimated 19 billion dollars.
The order will bolster Obama's bid to convince Americans that his ambitious foreign policy can have a domestic payoff in the wake of the deepest economic crisis in decades, as officials said the deals would support 235,000 US jobs.
Trumpets sounded and a 21-gun salute blasted over Washington as Hu arrived at a White House draped with US and Chinese flags, in the most sumptuous pageantry a US president can muster.
Despite doubts of critics in both countries, Obama said the United States and China had an "enormous stake" in one another's future prosperity and success and welcomed the rise of the giant Asian power.
But Obama, under extra political pressure over the visit as his successor as Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, languishes in a Chinese prison, also made a veiled, yet clear reference to China's human rights record.
"History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," Obama said.
Hu responded before invited guests and service personnel in dress uniform on the South Lawn of the White House, calling for greater cooperation and mutual exchanges between the US and Chinese peoples.
But in a hint at Sino-US differences over the rights issue, he did say "China and the United States should respect each other's choice of development path and each other's core interests."
The two leaders quickly went into Oval Office talks expected to lay bare disputes over currency policy, trade, US economic policy, access to Chinese markets and differing visions of Asian security and world affairs.
And in an event symbolizing the uneasy embrace between the world's most powerful advanced economy, and its fastest-developing new economic titan, Obama was to host Hu at a meeting of US and Chinese business leaders.
Hu will be honored later on Wednesday with the full pomp of a state dinner -- only Obama's third such occasion. The two leaders will also hold a press conference.
But in a further sign of the political sensitivity of Hu's visit, top members of Congress, including John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, declined invitations to attend the state dinner.
Democratic US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meanwhile branded Hu a "dictator" then withdrew the remark.
Obama and Hu are expected to spar over Washington's claims that China maintains its yuan currency at an artificially low level to boost its exports -- a practice American critics see as detrimental to US jobs and growth.
The White House meanwhile will be seeking to enlist further Chinese help on combating Iran's nuclear drive, cooling North Korea's belligerence and cooperation on ensuring a peaceful outcome to Sudan's independence referendum.
But few analysts expect major breakthroughs, forecasting instead a realistic appraisal of testing relations and a joint pledge by the United States and China to seek consensus where possible.
Despite two years of dealing with China, during which high US hopes for ties with Beijing have not been realized, Washington still appears to be assessing the potential of the relationship.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who shared a private meal with Hu and Obama on Tuesday night, said Wednesday that it was so far unclear whether China was a US friend or foe.
"The reason we're rolling out the red carpet" for the Chinese leader "is we think we'll be better (able) to answer such a question as we move forward," Clinton told ABC television when asked whether China is a friend or foe.
"My hope is we have a normal relationship," she said.
Hu's visit will mark the start of a turning point in US-China relations, as likely his last fully ceremonial journey to the United States before a power transition begins in China that will culminate in a new top leader in 2013.
China has been infuriated by the visit to Washington of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, last year.
The two sides have also been at odds over Chinese treatment of US intellectual property rights, Internet freedom, and naval rivalries in the Pacific, as well as US arms sales to Taiwan.
© AFP 2013