Obama, Xi make climate vow but clash on rights, islands

Jerome Cartillier
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US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive for a joint-press conference in the Rose Garden as part of a State Visit at the White House in Washington, DC, September 25, 2015

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive for a joint-press conference in the Rose Garden as part of a State Visit at the White House in Washington, DC, September 25, 2015 (AFP Photo/Yuri Gripas)

US President Barack Obama and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping vowed to fight global warming and halt commercial cybertheft, but exchanged sharp words on human rights and territorial disputes.

At an extraordinary joint news conference, Obama chided China on its treatment of dissidents and insisted hacking attacks on US firms must stop, even as he thanked Xi for his commitment on climate change.

The world's top two economic powers are also its biggest polluters, and campaigners hailed their commitment to reduce emissions as a key step toward a global climate pact before the end of the year.

This achievement was all the more remarkable given the tensions between the great powers over industrial espionage and China's aggressive moves to seize disputed territory in the South China Sea.

The red carpet and full ceremonial honors that welcomed Xi to the White House underlined the importance of the great powers' relationship, but the leaders made no effort to conceal the differences between them.

"We had a frank discussion about human rights, as we have in the past," Obama said, branding China's authoritarian treatment of political dissidents and religious or regional minorities "problematic."

Provocatively, Obama directly cited the name of Beijing's number one bugbear -- the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader seen by China as a criminal separatist -- at the leaders' joint news conference.

"Even as we recognize Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China, we continue to encourage Chinese authorities to preserve the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people and to engage the Dalai Lama or his representatives," Obama said.

The two delegations promised not to spy on each other's private enterprises for commercial gain, but here again, Obama used tough language, declaring: "I indicated it has to stop."

Xi protested that "China strongly opposes and combats the theft of commercial secrets and other kinds of hacking attacks."

- Disputed islands -

The Chinese leader also firmly pushed back on human rights criticism, warning that reform would come on China's own timetable and without undermining its stability.

"We must recognize that countries have different historical processes and realities, that we need to respect people of all countries in the rights to choose their own development path independently," he said.

There was also a sharp exchange over China's bid to extend its sovereignty over the South China Sea by building bases on reclaimed islands in areas disputed by Washington's southeast Asian allies.

"Islands in the South China Sea, since ancient times, are China's territory," Xi declared. "We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests."

Obama said the disputes must be settled in accordance with international statutes, noting: "I encouraged a resolution between claimants in these areas. We are not a claimant. We just want to make sure that the rules of the road are upheld."

Against this background, the agreement on climate change -- both countries signed a "joint vision" ahead of December's UN climate summit in Paris, and China committed to a domestic "cap and trade" carbon exchange -- was all the more notable.

China will also set aside $3.1 billion as a fund to help developing countries fight climate change.

"If the world's two largest economies, energy consumers and carbon emitters come together like this, then there is no reason for other countries, whether developed or developing, to not do so as well," Obama said.

UN chief ban Ki-moon commended both countries for the "significant steps" they pledged to take on the climate.

"This announcement bolsters prospects for a universal, meaningful agreement in Paris this year," said the spokesman for the secretary-general. "It further signals the shared vision and seriousness with which the world's two largest economies are moving to a low carbon future."

Environmental campaigners also welcomed the news.

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the United States and others should take inspiration from the Chinese measures.

"This is strong medicine. China is promising decisive action," she said. "It lays to rest the flawed argument that Chinese pollution is an excuse for US inaction."

- Out of kilter -

Xi is seen in Washington as one of the strongest Chinese leaders in decades, but his first great test will be the slowing of the economy.

The Chinese leader told the joint news conference that his country had moved from "speed-based growth to quality-based growth."

"We call this the new normal of the Chinese economy and I'm confident going forward China will... provide a healthy growth that strengthens confidence."

The two leaders also reiterated their governments' opposition to North Korea's nuclear program, demanding that Pyongyang submit to the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and declaring: "We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state."