WASHINGTON — Sharp U.S. criticism of China's human rights record overshadowed the results achieved at annual high-level meetings between the world's two largest economies aimed at resolving disputes over trade and foreign policy.
After two days of talks, the two sides announced a range of modest agreements aimed at increasing sales opportunities for U.S. companies in China. But there was no breakthrough on a key U.S. demand — letting China's currency rise in value at a faster rate against the dollar. The currency issue gained new urgency in the view of American manufacturers with release of a Chinese government report showing that China's trade surplus with the world had surged in April.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at a closing news conference Tuesday that the United States had made its concerns known on a range of sensitive issues, including human rights.
"We discussed everything, whether it was something sensitive to us or sensitive to them ... including human rights," Clinton said. "We made our concerns very clear."
In an interview published Tuesday on the website of The Atlantic magazine, Clinton said China's human rights record was "deplorable" and that history was not on the side of governments that resist democracy.
The Clinton magazine interview, which took place April 7, focused on the democracy protests that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa. Asked at the news conference whether those uprisings against authoritarian governments had come up during the two days of talks, Clinton said the two countries had discussed the uprisings, with U.S. officials making the point that America "supports the aspirations" for more freedom and opportunity.
Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden had raised the issue of human rights during the opening session of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue talks and the White House said President Barack Obama also had discussed human rights concerns during his meeting with leaders of the Chinese delegation late Monday.
Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese delegation, said State Councilor Dai Bingguo had responded to Obama's comments by saying China has made great progress in protecting human rights over the past 25 years.
Since February, China has questioned or detained hundreds of lawyers, writers and human rights activists in response to anonymous calls made on the Internet for protests in China. No demonstrations have occurred.
On economic issues, the Chinese did agree to take further steps to fulfill pledges that Chinese President Hu Jintao made during a January visit to Washington to provide better protection for U.S. companies against the piracy of computer software and other copyrighted material and also to modify government rules that U.S. companies say severely restrict their ability to compete for Chinese government contracts unless they agree to make their technology available to Chinese companies.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told reporters, "We are seeing very promising shifts in China's economic policy." He said the United States still hopes China will move more quickly to allow its currency to rise in value against the dollar and will also allow it to appreciate against the currencies of its other major trading partners.
The yuan has risen by about 5 percent since China unfroze its value and allowed it to resume rising against the dollar last June. But American manufacturers said the currency still remains undervalued by as much as 40 percent, which makes Chinese goods cheaper for American consumers and U.S. goods less competitive in China.
U.S. manufacturers expressed disappointment at the outcome of the latest talks, saying the small achievements will do little to lower a U.S. trade deficit that hit an all-time high of $273 billion last year.
"This is the Chinese year of the hare but when it comes to fixing their currency, intellectual property theft and investment protectionism, it has been the year of the tortoise," said Frank Vargo, vice president for international affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers.
Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, blamed the administration for not taking a harder line with China at a time of high unemployment in the United States.
"The administration's tactic on these issues has been to raise them politely and then move on," Paul said. "For the millions of American workers and businesses facing state-supported competition from China, that's simply not good enough."
Chinese officials blamed U.S. policies for the ballooning trade gap, urging the United States to move faster to remove controls that block the sale of high-technology products to China and also place high hurdles in the way of Chinese companies seeking to invest in the United States.
A U.S. Treasury official told reporters that the U.S. team had provided details to the Chinese over how changes the administration is proposing on export controls could help boost U.S. high-tech sales to China. This official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal specifics of the closed-door discussions, said the Chinese had committed to an inspection process to ensure that computer software being used by government agencies is not pirated.