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U.S. officials set stage for Hu's state visit

Declaring that U.S.-China relations are at a "critical juncture," the Obama administration said Friday it wanted to deepen its economic and security ties with Asia's emerging superpower but urged China to embrace political reform and respect human rights.

In speeches and in briefings, administration officials set the stage for Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit next week.

Hu's visit comes as the United States looks to China to become a stabilizing economic and strategic force that benefits both Washington and Beijing. It also comes in the face of domestic mistrust in the U.S. and China over each country's intentions.

Hu's three-day visit starts Tuesday and will include a state dinner at the White House.

It is seen as important in setting the tone for a relationship that has been strained over U.S. claims that China's currency has been undervalued and the secrecy in its military buildup. China has been angered by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and its support of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

"History teaches us that the rise of new powers often ushers in periods of conflict and uncertainty," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday.

"Indeed, on both sides of the Pacific, we do see trepidation about the rise of China and the future of the U.S.-China relationship. We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict."

But Clinton also noted China's human rights record and called for the release of jailed Chinese dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was prevented from attending the Dec. 10 prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

She said that as long as China represses freedoms, "Liu Xiaobo's empty chair in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation's unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise."

Still, the top issues for Hu and Obama center on the economy and security.

The administration has walked a fine line on economic issues, eager to tamp down domestic worries that a huge U.S. trade deficit with China represents a threat to American workers while assuring China it is not interested in constraining its growth.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, in a speech this week, said both countries can benefit from economic growth.

On Friday at the White House, Geithner stressed that economic ties between Beijing and Washington mean China will likely become the largest trading partner of the United States in the next decade, replacing Canada.

"It's very important to understand that this is a relationship with very substantial economic benefits to the United States," Geithner told reporters.

The U.S. has been pressing the Chinese to raise the value of the yuan, a step the Chinese have taken incrementally since June. But Geithner said Chinese inflation has also helped improve the competitiveness of American businesses in China.

The U.S. also wants China to take specific steps to end theft of technology and so-called "intellectual property" that is costing American businesses billions of dollars. It also wants an end to preferential treatment for Chinese businesses that are shutting out some U.S. corporations from the Chinese market.

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