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U.S. President Barack Obama crossed the dais to shake hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao after a joint press conference at the Great Hall of People on Tuesday. (Feng Li/2009 Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama crossed the dais to shake hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao after a joint press conference at the Great Hall of People on Tuesday. (Feng Li/2009 Getty Images)

A group of two on China's terms Add to ...

Twenty years after tanks crushed a student uprising on Tiananmen Square - marking the lowest point in recent U.S.-China relations - the President of the United States found himself standing in a building on the same plaza, acknowledging Beijing as a near-equal.

The G2, it appears, will work very differently than the old U.S.-China relationship, which frequently saw Washington make demands that China often had no choice but to accede to.

A newly assertive China, a growing military power that is also expected to soon pass Japan as the world's second-largest economy, stood ready to confront Barack Obama.

The Chinese leadership emerged from 21/2-hour summit talks here having given no ground on its positions regarding trade, human rights, and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

A post-meeting briefing with the two presidents left observers with little doubt that China has grown more confident.

Hu Jintao and Mr. Obama were placed at podiums set up far apart on a stage inside the imposing Great Hall of the People, looking stiff and uncomfortable with one another.

They gave differing accounts of what was said during their meeting, and because the Chinese allowed no questions, the message delivered by the usually loquacious Mr. Obama appeared muted.

Mr. Hu made a pointed statement about the need for the two countries to "oppose and reject protectionism," an obvious stab at new tariffs applied to some Chinese goods entering the United States. Mr. Obama highlighted previous Chinese promises to release its currency, the yuan, from an artificially low peg. But he appeared to have received no new promises on that front.

Mr. Obama also chided his hosts - as he did Monday at a question-and-answer session with university students in Shanghai that his hosts kept off the main Chinese television networks - about the need to allow greater rights and freedoms. And he likely riled Mr. Hu by suggesting that he should meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a dangerous separatist.

But on a day when several prominent Chinese dissidents were forced to leave Beijing so that they couldn't have any contact with the U.S. delegation, Mr. Obama's admonitions appeared to be intended only to appease domestic critics who accuse him of being soft on China's authoritarian regime.

"Nobody's talking down to the Chinese in any of these documents," said Richard Baum, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, referring to the joint statement issued by the two sides. "That's fairly new and I think that's significant. I think the relationship has changed and it has changed to the satisfaction of the Chinese."

Mr. Obama himself highlighted the shifting balance of power, noting that "the relationship between the United States and China has never been more important to our collective future."

But as this new reality set in, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was forced to concede the lack of common ground.

"I do not expect, and I can speak authoritatively for the President on this, that we thought the waters would part and everything would change over the course of our almost 21/2-day trip to China. We understand there's a lot of work to do and that we'll continue to work hard at making more progress."

The change has come rapidly. Ahead of Bill Clinton's 1998 trip to Beijing, a then eager-to-please Chinese government released two high-profile dissidents, Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, into exile in the United States. This time the Chinese made no such concessions, and Tuesday even briefly arrested an American woman who was waiting outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, hoping to deliver a letter to Mr. Obama about her jailed Chinese husband.

When Mr. Clinton travelled to Beijing to meet Mr. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, China was grateful for the attention after nearly a decade of diplomatic isolation after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But now it's the U.S. - weakened by two wars and a recession - that finds itself on the back foot. Mr. Obama's visit marked the first time a U.S. president had travelled to Beijing during his first year in office.

"Ever since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. was the only remaining superpower in the world and they are accustomed to conducting themselves internationally as though they are the only superpower. But now there is a growing China, a rising China, which is a challenge for the U.S., as well as for China," said Victor Gao, director of the Beijing-based China National Association of International Studies and an interpreter for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

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