BEIJING – Following an intense two days of talks, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled an array of agreements on climate change, military cooperation and trade as they sought to overcome persistent tensions between the world's two largest economies.
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Areas of discord still bubbled to the surface during their rare joint press conference in the heart of the Chinese capital. Obama gently pressed Xi on human rights and rejected rumors that the U.S. is fueling pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while the Chinese president repeatedly reminded his American guest that his nation wants to be seen as an equal to the United States.
As he closed his first visit to China in six years, Obama said he and Xi have reached a "common understanding on how the relationship between our two countries should move forward."
"Where we have disagreements, we will be candid about our intentions, and we will work to narrow those differences where possible," Obama said shortly before departing for Myanmar, his second stop on a three-country trip through the Asia-Pacific region.
Both Obama and Xi heralded a joint commitment to cut greenhouse gases, an agreement that came about after months of secret talks between officials from both countries. The pact is meant to signal to other heavy-polluting nations that the U.S. and China are in sync on the need to tackle climate change in the lead-up to a high-stakes summit in Paris next year.
The two leaders also announced an agreement to have their militaries give each other more guidance about their activities in the Pacific, a step deemed necessary after U.S. and Chinese aircraft have come dangerously close in the region. In addition, Obama and Xi touted a breakthrough in trade talks to reduce tariffs on high-tech goods, as well as a deal to extend the lengths of visas granted to U.S. and Chinese citizens.
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White House officials had pressed their Chinese counterparts for weeks to allow reporters to ask questions of the two leaders after they made statements to the press. The Chinese government, which keeps tight control of media in the country, agreed just hours before the event to allow a question from one reporter from each country.
However, Xi first appeared to ignore a question posed to him from an American journalist who asked about restrictions placed on U.S. news organizations operating in the country. He later suggested it was unfavorable coverage that had led to the crackdowns, saying "the party which started the problem should be the one to resolve it."
Obama has made significant personal investments in his relationship with Xi, including a two-day summit at a California estate last year. U.S. officials saw Xi as a potentially new kind of Chinese leader, with closer ties to the U.S. than other Chinese officials — he spent time in Iowa as an exchange student — and an ease with public appearances that eluded his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Yet Xi has proved to be less accommodating to the White House than some U.S. officials expected. He has dramatically consolidated power since taking office, deepened China's provocative maritime disputes with its neighbors and stands accused of continuing cyberattacks against the United States. U.S. officials have new concerns over the potential for a crackdown in Hong Kong and are warily watching Beijing strengthen ties with Moscow as the West distances itself from Russia.
For its part, Beijing remains skeptical of Obama's intentions in Asia, seeing his efforts to bolster U.S. economic ties in the region as a way of countering China's rise. Xi made pointed references to Chinese-led regional initiatives, including an Asian infrastructure bank and free trade agreement, while still saying he was open to U.S. participation in such endeavors.
Speaking through a translator, Xi said "the Pacific Ocean is broad enough" to accommodate the prowess of both the U.S. and China.
Obama's domestic political weakness, particularly following the Democrats' defeats in last week's midterm elections, has also sparked questions in China about whether the U.S. president can deliver on potential international agreements. In the days leading up to Obama's visit, a newspaper with ties to the Chinese government said the American public had "downgraded" Obama and grown tired of his "banality."
The U.S. president dismissed that criticism and other anti-American rhetoric in China. "I am always working on the assumption that the press gives me a hard time wherever I go, whether in the United States or China," he said.
The U.S. has long faced criticism for engaging with China despite its troubling human rights record. Obama said he broached the topic in his conversations with Xi this week and emphasized that universal freedoms are essential "whether it is in New York or Paris of Hong Kong" — a nod to the protests in the special administrative region of China.
Chinese officials have suggested the U.S. has played a role in directing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Obama denied those charges Wednesday, saying he had been "unequivocal" in reassuring Xi that the U.S. "had no involvement in fostering the protests that took place there."
In another nod to China's sovereignty, Obama reaffirmed his support for a "one China" policy that regards Taiwan as part of China.
Xi also waded into the issue of human rights, saying his country has made "enormous progress" on the matter.
"That is a fact that is recognized by all people in the world," he said.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.
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