- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

President Bush yesterday urged Chinese President Hu Jintao to allow his people “the freedom to assemble, to speak freely and to worship,” and both leaders said after an Oval Office meeting that they had agreed to work together to reduce China’s $202 billion trade surplus and to stop the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

The day began with a lavish welcoming ceremony on the White House South Lawn — complete with an honor guard, a fife and drum corps and a 21-gun salute — but was marred early by a boisterous protester and ended with little tangible agreement.

The two leaders said they enjoyed frank discussions that were both philosophical and specific. “He tells me what he thinks, and I tell him what I think, and we do so with respect,” Mr. Bush said after an hourlong meeting with the Chinese president.

Mr. Hu, who answered questions in a rare session with reporters, said he had a “pragmatic and constructive dialogue with President Bush” as part of “an in-depth exchange of views on the Chinese-U.S. relationship and major regional as well as international issues of mutual interest.”

But there was little to show for the daylong talks. In the end, Mr. Hu said the six-way talks with North Korea have stalled and offered no specific support for sanctions against Iran, which China could block as a member of the U.N. Security Council.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the day was an assurance by Mr. Hu to work to make the Chinese currency more “flexible.”

The two discussed the record U.S. trade imbalance with China. Mr. Bush said Mr. Hu “recognizes that a trade deficit with the United States is substantial and it is unsustainable. … Obviously, the Chinese government takes the currency issue seriously, and so do I.”

Mr. Bush urged Mr. Hu to continue progress on loosening Beijing’s tightly controlled currency. The United States views the Chinese yuan as undervalued, and Mr. Bush said, “We would hope there would be more appreciation” in allowing the currency to rise with market forces.

Afterward, U.S. officials deemed the effort “disappointing.”

“It’s not nearly enough,” said Dennis Wilder, acting senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff.

In another small development, Mr. Bush offered Mr. Hu greater U.S. cooperation on space exploration and planned to send the head of NASA to China this year to discuss lunar exploration.

Still, Mr. Wilder characterized the talks as “substantive discussions” and said Mr. Hu acknowledged in his Oval Office meeting with Mr. Bush that “if there is no democracy, there will be no modernization.”

“And, he said, expanding the democracy and freedom for the Chinese citizens is one of our goals. That is a very interesting statement, because I don’t think I have seen a Chinese leader quite so distinctly make a link between the modernization program and democracy,” Mr. Wilder said.

The two leaders failed to find common ground on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a short session with reporters after their meeting, Mr. Bush said that Mr. Hu agreed on the goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons or having the capability to produce them. China has resisted the approach favored by the United States and Europe — pursuing U.N. sanctions if Tehran does not comply with demands that it halt uranium enrichment — and there appeared to be no movement on that issue.

The United States and China are in a position to “work on tactics” to achieve that goal, Mr. Bush said.

“We don’t agree on everything, but we are able to discuss our disagreements in friendship and cooperation,” he said.

The two leaders agreed that North Korea must be pressured to give up its own nuclear ambitions, and Mr. Bush expressed optimism that China is making efforts to play a role as mediator to bring North Korea back to six-nation talks.

But Mr. Hu immediately countered that the talks are stalled and require compromise.

“The six-party talks have run into some difficulties at the moment. I hope that the parties will be able to further display flexibility, work together and create necessary conditions for the early resumption of the talks,” Mr. Hu said.

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