WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he had reached a “common understanding” with President Xi Jinping of China to combat “cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property,” but made it clear that wide areas of disagreement remained over how to stop an escalation of Chinese cyberthefts and the possibility of an American response.
With Mr. Xi standing beside him at a Rose Garden news conference, Mr. Obama referred to the cyberattacks against American targets and said, “I indicated it has to stop.” But he also hailed progress with China on climate change and the nuclear accord with Iran, and said that both he and Mr. Xi were committed to pressing ahead against the North Korean nuclear problem, which has defied solution for more than 20 years.
It was evident from the comments of both leaders that they had not reached an agreement on China’s reclamation of islands in the South China Sea, which Mr. Xi defended during his own remarks, saying that Beijing supported the “freedom of navigation according to international law.” That suggested that no accord had been reached on China’s claim that the islands are its sovereign territory.
But both Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi made an effort to demonstrate that the two countries had made progress on curbing cyberattacks, even while skirting direct references to some of the most contentious issues, including the American claim that China was behind the theft of security dossiers on roughly 22 million Americans from the Office of Personnel Management.
“Confrontation and friction are not the right choice,” Mr. Xi said.
A joint statement issued by the White House indicated that the two leaders had agreed that “neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.” Mr. Xi repeated those words, but said nothing of cyberespionage.
The two countries also embraced a United Nations accord, adopted in July, that commits the signatories not to target one another’s critical infrastructure — power plants, cellphone networks and financial transactions — in peacetime. But that leaves open many questions, since there are many definitions of what constitutes critical infrastructure.
While Mr. Obama hailed the agreement, he said the question now was, “Are words followed by actions?”
“We will be watching carefully,” he said.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi spoke in the Rose Garden after meeting for more than two hours in the White House.
The morning began with an elaborate White House welcome, complete with a 21-gun salute that reverberated across the South Lawn as a military band played the national anthem and then “March of Volunteers,” the anthem of the People’s Republic of China since the 1949 revolution.
Protesters were kept at a distance, a block from the White House, and their chants could only be heard faintly from the South Lawn. The elaborate welcome ceremony, designed to project a strong partnership between the world’s two largest economies even as the leaders prepared to hash out a range of contentious disputes, went off without the heckling that so angered the Chinese when President George W. Bush hosted Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, in 2006.
Mr. Obama spoke of the long history of “friendship and cooperation between our two great peoples,” citing the Chinese immigrants who “helped build our railroads and our great cities.”
“When the United States and China work together, it makes our nations and the world more prosperous and secure,” Mr. Obama said. But in a nod to the countries’ substantial disagreements, he added, “Even as our nations cooperate, I believe, and I know that you agree, we must address our differences candidly.”
For Mr. Xi, the most important outcome of the trip was his ability to project an image of strength and command while China’s markets, and its economy, are suffering one of their worst downturns in decades of remarkable growth. His first stop — in Seattle, where he met with American technology leaders eager for greater inroads in the Chinese market but concerned about China’s demands for access to their technology and the data that runs on their networks — was designed to show that America’s most famous capitalists had to pay homage.
But the White House also wanted to celebrate areas of cooperation, and American officials leaked word late Thursday of a broad agreement between the two leaders on climate change. The keystone of that pact is a landmark commitment Mr. Xi will make to begin a national cap-and-trade program in 2017 that will place an annual limit on greenhouse gas emissions and allow companies to buy and sell permits to pollute.
The two presidents are expected to point to their cooperation on combating the planet’s warming as evidence of their ability to put aside differences and use their heft on the global stage to tackle major problems, while also intensifying pressure on other nations to follow their lead.
Mr. Obama’s aides knew that a dinner Thursday night at Blair House, across the street from the White House, and the meetings Friday in the Oval Office had to be focused on an array of topics that divide the leaders. Those issues include cyberattacks for which Mr. Obama has threatened sanctions against China, the Chinese military’s reclamation of islands and atolls in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and human rights.
American and Chinese officials have been negotiating intensely to reach a preliminary deal on cyberattacks, an irritant in their relationship that has festered for two years. It has taken on new urgency at the White House since a hacking episode at the Office of Personnel Management allowed the theft of 22 million security dossiers and 5.6 million fingerprints. Officials have been discussing a pact that would amount to an agreement not to attack each other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime.
But they were under pressure to do more, because such an agreement would be largely symbolic — neither country would gain from such an attack unless it was part of broader hostilities — and it would not address state-sponsored theft of intellectual property or personal information, one of the most delicate areas.
Before the discussions on China’s move to build runways and other infrastructure on artificial islands in contested parts of the South China Sea, the Chinese foreign ministry put out talking points, saying the vast expanse of that sea is “a big place that can accommodate freedom of navigation by all.” But at the same time, they argued that the new islands were Chinese territory, and that the United States should not interfere in the question of ownership.
White House officials said Mr. Obama would also raise his concern about China’s proposed legislation on foreign nongovernmental organizations, which the White House regards as a way to restrict the rights of civil society groups, academics and others in the name of security. There will be glimmers of agreement beyond climate change, however, including on economic issues. The two leaders will most likely reiterate their determination to work together on an investment treaty, although they are unlikely to make progress on it during this visit.
They are also aiming for a deal to expand educational exchanges between the United States and China. And there is likely to be an agreement on rules governing episodes involving Chinese and American military aircraft, aimed at avoiding accidents or confrontations.
Their meetings began Thursday night with a working dinner at Blair House, where Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi, along with senior members of their administrations, spent about two and a half hours in private discussions.