WASHINGTON – President Obama assured China's heir apparent to leadership that the United States welcomes Beijing's rise in the world, saying Tuesday that strong cooperation between the two powers is good for the rest of the world.
Obama offered a warm welcome to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping amid sharp policy differences over Syria, Iran and economic issues, as well as longstanding U.S. concerns over Chinese human rights practices.
Obama aides said those issues would be on the table during Xi's unusually long and high-level visit to the United States, but there was no sign of discord during a brief joint appearance between Obama and Xi following their first-ever meeting.
"We welcome China's peaceful rise," Obama said as the two men sat in the Oval Office. "We believe that a strong and prosperous China is one that can help to bring stability and prosperity to the region and to the world."
Obama said he looks forward to future cooperation.
A smiling Xi told Obama he wants to build on the past relationship between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao and "deepen the friendship" between the people of the two countries.
"I hope to engage with a broad cross-section of American society during my current visit so as to deepen mutual understanding, expand consensus, strengthen cooperation and deepen the friendship between the Chinese and American people," Xi said, a reference to an itinerary that includes stops in Iowa and California.
Xi's visit is being closely watched because he will likely lead China over the coming decade, but his remarks after meetings with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did not deviate from customary diplomatic rhetoric.
Xi is slated to become China's Communist Party leader in the fall, and president in 2013. His visit offers Washington its first hard look at the man who is destined to lead the world's most populous nation in the coming decade, when the U.S. and China are likely to see their economic ties grow even as they are viewed increasingly as military rivals.
"We are not always going to see eye-to-eye. We are not always going to see things exactly the same, but we have very important economic and political concerns that warrant that we work together," Biden said, before talks began in the Roosevelt Room.
Much of Xi's visit will be in the company of Biden, who went to China as Xi's guest in August.
Xi has impeccable Communist Party credentials as the son of a famed revolutionary, but is viewed as more able to make personal connections than Hu and more willing to step away from the traditional aloofness of Chinese high office.
While Xi's trip is unlikely to herald any policy changes it may signal his leadership style.
In brief comments in response to Biden, a smiling Xi said it was his "great pleasure" to meet the vice president again, following his visit to China last August, and thanked him personally for his part in arranging the reciprocal visit.
Xi said he hoped his trip would build on the progress made by Obama and Hu during a state visit by China's president a year ago, in building a "cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit." He said he looked forward to having "an in-depth and candid exchange of views."
His visit will give the Obama administration a chance to press familiar issues with China, including its worsening treatment of dissidents, the unrest in Tibet and the vast U.S.-China trade imbalance.
Xi also will meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who will be hoping to inject some vigor into halfhearted ties between their two militaries. Washington will need to convince a skeptical Beijing that an adjustment in U.S. foreign policy to emphasize the economically booming Asia-Pacific region is not aimed at containing the rise of China -- which, in turn, needs to convince the U.S. and many Asian nations that they need not fear its two-decade military buildup.
Also on the agenda: North Korea, Iran and Syria, following China's decision last week to join Russia in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad's government over its violent crackdown on opponents.
But with Obama vying for re-election this November, and Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney already accusing the incumbent of being soft on China, the administration will be focused particularly on economic issues.
The primary American concern is likely to be on Chinese trade rule violations, but the U.S. also will reiterate problems with intellectual property theft and the value of China's currency. The yuan has gained a little against the dollar in the past 1 1/2 years but still is viewed by Washington as undervalued to boost the exports that still drive China's economy.
Despite the wide array of issues at hand, U.S. officials see Xi's visit primarily as an investment in relationship-building, both on the personal level and to advance a three-year push for cooperative ties with Asia's emerging superpower.
After two days in Washington Xi will travel to Iowa, where he will meet those who hosted him when he visited the Midwestern state as a county official on a 1985 study tour. He then travels to Los Angeles to meet more business leaders.
Hu visited the U.S. in 2002, also shortly before he became China's leader, succeeding the more charismatic Jiang Zemin. As with Hu, the visit will give Xi a chance to burnish his credentials and show the audience back home he can manage ties with the U.S.
The intervening decade since Hu's formative visit has seen big changes, with China now eclipsing Japan as the world's second-largest economy and its military now posing a serious challenge to U.S. predominance in the western Pacific.