- Associated Press - Thursday, January 20, 2011

Concluding a momentous Washington visit, Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday denied his country is a military threat despite its arms buildup and pressed his U.S. hosts to seek closer cooperation between the global powers.

In meetings with congressional leaders and U.S. business representatives, Mr. Hu urged the United States to treat China “with respect and as equals” after encountering a fresh barrage of criticism from lawmakers over his country’s human rights record.

Concluding a three-day state visit, the Chinese leader then flew to Chicago, where he dined Thursday evening with retiring Mayor Richard Daley, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and business leaders. On Friday, he visits a Chinese center at a high school and a Chinese auto-parts producer.

Earlier Thursday, Mr. Hu went to Capitol Hill for closed-door meetings with members of the House and the Senate. Participants said he got an earful of complaints from some of his strongest congressional critics, especially over China’s business and trade practices and human rights conduct.

President Obama had expressed similar human rights concerns a day earlier at the White House.

House Speaker John A. Boehner said House members “raised our strong, ongoing concerns with reports of human rights violations in China, including the denial of religious freedom and the use of coercive abortion” as a result of China’s population-control policies restricting most families to just one child.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said she gave Mr. Hu a copy of a letter she sent to Mr. Obama highlighting “grave concerns” over human rights violations, currency manipulation and aggressive military gestures by Beijing.

“Out of all the issues I raised, the only one which received a response from Mr. Hu was my statement urging the end of China’s forced-abortion policy. I was astonished when he insisted that such a policy does not exist,” she said.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who earlier this week referred to Mr. Hu as a “dictator,” said he raised issues of trade, Chinese currency policies and a need for more Chinese investment and tourism in the United States.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said the past year has been a challenging one in Sino-American relations.

“Despite the shared gains achieved working together on global problems, many in Congress today believe the United States and China are on a collision course. It’s critical that leaders in both countries don’t allow mutual suspicions to degenerate into fearmongering and demagoguery,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Hu received a generally warmer reception at the luncheon session hosted jointly by the U.S.-China Business Council, which is made up of corporate officials with business ties to China, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a foreign-relations policy group.

“We will remain committed to the path of peaceful development,” Mr. Hu told the luncheon. “We do not engage in an arms race. We are not a military threat to any country. China will never seek to dominate or pursue an expansionist policy.”

Mr. Hu said China intended to “develop a socialist democracy and build a socialist country under the rule of law.”

In particular, Mr. Hu called for closer U.S.-Chinese cooperation in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.

“We should stay committed to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, engage in open and inclusive regional cooperation, and turn the Asia-Pacific into an important region, where China and the United States work closely with each other on the basis of mutual respect,” Mr. Hu said.

Mr. Hu, slated to step down as president next year, did not specifically mention human rights in his speech to the business leaders.

A day earlier, Mr. Hu stood alongside Mr. Obama at a White House news conference and conceded, “A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”

Those remarks were welcomed by the White House as a significant conciliatory gesture. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday called them a “frank admission,” although some China experts said Mr. Hu has used similar words before.

“While we appreciate those words, the United States will watch the actions of the Chinese government to make sure that they meet the words that were spoken in the White House yesterday,” Mr. Gibbs said.

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