Wang Zhao-Pool / Getty Imgaes

Despite strains with Beijing, Obama strikes upbeat tone in China

US president arrived in Beijing on Monday for a weeklong visit that includes a major economic summit

A successful China is in the interests of the United States, President Barack Obama declared Monday at the start of an official trip to Asia. But in somewhat guarded comments, he said U.S. business interests must be balanced with the need to speak out over “things that we care about,” adding that Beijing needs to be a partner in underwriting international order and not undermine it.

The comments came as he sought to put a largely positive spin on the future of U.S. ties with China despite thorny issues like human rights, cyberespionage, regional influence and disputed territory in the East and South China seas lurking beneath the surface.

Addressing Asian business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, he sought to dispel the notion that U.S. interests in Asia should be a cause for concern for China's leaders. Beijing has viewed his engagement at the gathering in Beijing with trepidation, suspecting the U.S. wants to limit China's rise. But Obama insisted, "One country's prosperity doesn't have to come at the expense of the other."

"We want China to do well," he said. "We compete for business, but we also seek to cooperate on a broad range of challenges and shared opportunities."

Hoping to encourage the optimistic side of the U.S.-China relationship, he announced that the two countries would start granting visas to each other’s citizens valid for up to a decade.

But there were abundant reminders on Obama's first day in China of the stark differences that have left the world's two largest economies eying each other warily from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.

At the U.S. Embassy, he hosted leaders from the 11 other countries — excluding China — that are pursuing a long-delayed trade pact. Key obstacles to completing the deal remain, including Japan's objection to opening its markets to foreign competition, and U.S. officials said after the meeting that a final agreement was still a ways off.

"We're going to keep on working to get it done," he said, calling the pact "the model for trade in the 21st century."

White House officials have been more optimistic about the deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), since last week's U.S. elections. Republicans, who tend to favor trade deals, won control of both chambers of Congress, making it more likely that Obama can secure up-or-down approval for a final vote on the deal. That prospect was a rare silver lining for him after elections that were disastrous for his party and that diminished his stature as he headed to Asia.

The TPP deal has been a cornerstone of Obama's much-touted effort to expand U.S. influence in Asia but yet another irritant in his relations with China, which isn't a party to the talks and has responded by pushing its own regional trade deal.

In his speech to business leaders on Monday, he noted U.S. concerns about the Chinese business environment, urging China to reject the use of cybertheft for commercial gain and create a more level playing field where policy is not used for the benefit of some firms over others.

"We look to China to become an innovative economy that values the protection of intellectual property rights and rejects cybertheft of trade secrets for commercial gain."

He also raised concerns about currency manipulation, human rights and environmental standards in his remarks. White House aides have said he plans to bring up such concerns during his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but Obama appeared to be carefully calibrating his words to avoid letting those disputes interfere with the broader relationship.

Obama and Xi will meet over dinner on Tuesday night and then for bilateral talks as part of an official state visit on Wednesday.

Sitting down earlier with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Obama was circumspect in his comments about pro-democracy protests that have disrupted Hong Kong, urging China's government to prevent violence there while calling the situation "historically complicated."

"We're not going to stop speaking out on behalf of the things that we care about," Obama said, adding that those interests must be balanced with the United States' significant business interests with China.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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