Visiting Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping got a red-carpet welcome at the White House and the Pentagon Tuesday. Both occasions were part of a high-stakes Valentine's Day visit that could set the tone for future relations between the world's sole superpower and its rising Asian rival four decades after Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit.
But at a lavish State Department lunch in his honor, Vice President Joe Biden served up a heaping plateful of criticisms over Beijing's allegedly unfair trade practices and its human rights record, which Washington has fiercely and repeatedly denounced.
Under the crystal chandeliers of the Benjamin Franklin Dining Room and the watchful eye of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Biden warned that competition between the two economic giants "can only be mutually beneficial if the game is fair."
Biden recited a litany of US criticisms to Xi, who is on track to become general secretary of China's Communist Party this fall and to formally succeed Hu Jintao as China's president in 2013.
The US vice president notably pressed his guest over rampant theft of US intellectual property, and on charges that Beijing keeps its currency artificially cheap in order to keep the price of its exports down relative to US goods. (Thus hurting US manufacturers and and the jobs-hungry US economy — a regular chorus of US complaints sure to grow louder ahead of the November elections.)
Biden also scolded China over its decision to join Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ending what he called Syria's "unconscionable" and bloody crackdown on opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
And Biden called out Beijing on human rights, naming them "a key to the prosperity and stability of all societies" and signaling US concern over areas in which they have "deteriorated" in China, including "the plight of several very prominent individuals" whom he did not name.
Xi, speaking through an interpreter, noted that he had met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office earlier and that the two leaders had "a candid exchange of views" on human rights — a term of diplomatic art often used to mask a sharp disagreement.
And the visiting dignitary defended China's "tremendous and well recognized" advances in human rights over the past three decades while allowing that "of course, there is always room for improvements" and insisting that other countries approach the issue with "mutual respect."
At the lunch, some 200 guests, including former Nixon secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Chevron Chairman and CEO John Watson, Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger, Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as senior Chinese officials, dined on Chinese-American chef Ming Tsai's gourmet menu, including soy-marinated Alaskan butterfish.
Biden drew laughter from the crowd with a quip about Xi's pending trip to Iowa and the deeply unsettled race for the Republican presidential nomination.
"Mr Vice President — this is not on the script -- Lindsey Graham is relieved that you didn't show up in [Iowa in] January. You may have won the Republican nomination," said Biden, referring to the Republican Senator from South Carolina, who was a guest at the lunch.
Earlier, Obama had gently prodded Xi on trade and human rights, cautioning that "with expanding power and prosperity also comes increased responsibilities."
The president said all countries must follow "the same rules of the road when it comes to the world economic system," and declared that the United States "will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."
The meeting, four decades after Nixon's landmark visit to China reshaped the global landscape of the Cold War, was widely seen as Xi's major debut on the world stage, an opportunity to show that he can manage what is arguably the world's most critical diplomatic relationship before his expected ascent to lead the world's most populous country.
It was also an opportunity for Obama and Biden to deepen their individual working ties to Xi.
Xi told Obama that he hoped "to move forward the China-US relationship along in the right direction set by you and President Hu, that is, for our two countries to work together to build a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interests."
Amid concerns in Beijing that the United States aims to contain or even confront China, Obama stressed that "we welcome China's peaceful rise" and that hoped for "a future of improved dialogue and increased cooperation in the years to come."
The talks came as some of Republican presidential candidates have pounded on the Democratic incumbent's handling of relations with Beijing, and Obama himself has toughened his election-year message to China over its allegedly unfair trading practices.
In his annual State of the Union speech last month, Obama vowed he "will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules,"and announced the creation of a special "Trade Enforcement Unit" tasked "with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China."
"Our workers are the most productive on Earth," he said, "and if the playing field is level, I promise you -— America will always win," he declared.
Mitt Romney has vowed a Day One counteroffensive against China if he is elected, saying he will move to formally designate that country a currency manipulator, opening the door to retaliatory sanctions that his erstwhile rival -- and Obama's former ambassador to Beijing -- Jon Huntsman warned risked triggering a trade war.
Romney has also blasted China's "one-child" population control policy -- which critics charge is enforced with forced abortions and sterilizations -- as "barbaric," called China a "cultural threat," and warned that Beijing's military buildup could threaten US interests and allies in the Pacific.
Such criticisms are far from rare in US presidential contests, and often require the eventual winner to pivot away from "big, tough talk" to the complex business of governing, according to Mike Green, who served as the top Asia hand on former president George W. Bush's National Security Council.
"It usually happens in presidential elections that when China is a major issue, big tough talk happens, and then people have to adjust. I don't think any candidate or the president have gotten to that line yet. But if its gets out of control, it would be a concern," Green said at a briefing last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
And Xi himself urged Washington after his arrival on Monday to treat China in an "objective and rational way" even in the heat of the presidential campaign.
"I believe no one of insight from the US side would like to see that the election factors would have a regrettable impact on the development of ties between the two countries," Xi said, as quoted in English by China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
Xi's whirlwind visit was also to include talks at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- a rarity for a senior Chinese official -- as well as a visit to Congress and a meeting with US business leaders at the US Chamber of Commerce. He will also travel to Iowa, visiting the heartland state he first toured in 1985 as a low-ranking official. Xi is also due to travel to California.
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