This is the first time in history that a Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.S. President has rolled out the red carpet for the leader of a country who has a different Nobel Peace Laureate in jail -- begging the question for some observers: does the U.S. need China more than China needs us?
Those differences were on display at a joint press conference even though the name of the imprisoned Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiabo, was never mentioned by American or Chinese leaders or reporters.
President Obama said he has raised the issue of human rights with President Hu and that he expects China will change in the years to come.
"We have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly," said Obama, adding that "doesn't prevent us from cooperating in … other critical areas."
Hu declined to answer the question on human rights asked by an American reporter after at first appearing not to hear it through a translator. Pressed later by a second reporter, Hu argued that China has made strides in the area of human rights, but said there are different circumstances in different countries.
"China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights," Hu said. "At the same time, we need to take into account the different national circumstances. China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform."
The delicate issue of human rights and historical differences between the countries were accentuated on Tuesday, by comments made by the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate on a talk show in his home state of Nevada.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dubbed Chinese President Hu Jintao "a dictator."
"I am going to go back to Washington tomorrow and meet with the President of China. He is a dictator. He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have. Maybe I shouldn't have said dictator, but they have a different type of government than we have and that is an understatement," Reid said.
Reid will not be attending the State Dinner in Hu's honor Wednesday night, but is scheduled to meet with him on Capitol Hill later in the week.
China's important role in the U.S. economy is also on display at these talks.
"I absolutely believe China's peaceful rise is good for the world, and it's good for America," Obama said.
"We want to sell you all kinds of stuff," Obama told Hu later. "We want to sell you planes, we want to sell you cars, we want to sell you software."
Pegged to today's official state visit at the White House, China will announce a series of commercial deals to purchase $45 billion in U.S. exports, including a $19 billion purchase of 200 Boeing airplanes, a senior administration official said today.
The deal, the White House said, will support 235,000 jobs in the United States.