Apec summit 2014
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Obama and Xi take questions from the press in Beijing. Photo: AFP

US and China have 'common understanding' says Obama in rare news conference with Xi

US President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping sought to play down points of tension unveiling a flurry of agreements on climate change, military cooperation and trade

US President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping sought to play down points of tension between their two nations on Wednesday, unveiling a flurry of agreements on climate change, military cooperation and trade, while casting their own burgeoning relationship as candid and productive.

Yet areas of discord between the world’s largest economies still bubbled to the surface. Obama pressed Xi on human rights and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while Xi repeatedly reminded his American guest that his nation wants to be seen as an equal to the United States.

“I believe that President Xi and I have a common understanding on how the relationship between our two countries should move forward,” Obama said as he closed a three-day trip to China. “Where we have disagreements, we will be candid about our intentions, and we will work to narrow those differences where possible.”

Xi, speaking through a translator, spoke of an "unwavering spirit" that characterized the two countries' commitment to cooperate as global powers.

The two leaders addressed reporters in a rare joint news conference for the Chinese leader. Xi first appeared to ignore a question posed to him from an American reporter who asked about restrictions placed on US news organisations operating in the country, then later suggested it was unfavourable coverage that had led to the crackdowns.

Obama has made significant personal investments in his relationship with Xi, including a two-day summit at a California estate last year. US officials have seen Xi as a potentially new kind of Chinese leader, with closer ties to the US 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 consolidated power since taking office, deepened China’s provocative maritime disputes with its neighbours and stands accused of continuing cyberattacks against the United States. US officials have new concerns over the potential for a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and are warily watching Beijing strengthen ties with Moscow as the West distances itself from Russia.

For its part, Beijing remains sceptical of Obama’s intentions in Asia, seeing his efforts to bolster US economic ties in the region as a way of countering China’s rise. 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 US president can deliver on potential international agreements. 

In the days leading up to Obama’s visit, the Global Times, affiliated to Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said the American public had “downgraded” Obama and grown tired of his “banality”.

The US president dismissed such criticism, saying: “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.”

Obama and Xi did announce a series of agreements through their two days of talks, including a significant joint announcement on greenhouse gases that was the result of months of secret discussions between US and Chinese officials.

As part of the new agreement, Obama announced that the US would move much faster in cutting pollution, with a goal to reduce emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. Xi set a target for China’s emissions to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible.

Human rights has long been an area where the US and China have been at odds. Obama said he broached the topic in his conversations with Xi, saying universal freedoms are essential “whether it is in New York or Paris of Hong Kong”.

Obama insisted the US had played no part in “fostering the protests that took place: in the Chinese region but also told Xi that the United States would encourage elections in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong that are free and fair and reflect the will of people.

This drew a riposte in front of reporters from Xi that what happens in Hong Kong is an internal matter for 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 recognised by all people in the world,” he said.