'Respect for rights'
"Just as we respect China's ancient culture and remarkable achievements, we also strongly believe that the religion and culture of all peoples must be respected and protected, and that all people should be free to speak their minds," Obama said as he launched the two-day talks on Monday.
"That includes ethnic and religious minorities in China, as surely as it includes minorities within the United States."
The two-day session between US and Chinese officials is the first since Obama took office six months ago and the dialogue covers issues including climate change and nuclear weapons policy.
Obama urged China to work with Washington to tackle nuclear proliferation, in a pointed reference to North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
The US and China "must continue our collaboration to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and make it clear to North Korea that the path to security and respect can be travelled if they meet their obligations", he said.
Economy tops agenda
But top of the agenda was the global economic crisis and US and Chinese officials discussed how and when to withdraw the huge stimulus spending each has rolled out and to put in place measures to promote steadier long-term growth.
"The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century, which makes it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world"
Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, urged China to increase domestic consumption and Beijing responded with tough questions about how Washington intends to rein in its soaring budget deficits.
But he also praised the co-operation between the US and China, saying joint action had made "a very substantial contribution" to the governments' success "in blunting the force of this economic recession and beginning to restore confidence".
Wang Qishan, the Chinese vice-premier who is co-chairing the economic track of the talks with Geithner, echoed the US treasury chief's statements.
He said the US and China were "joining hands" to overcome the downturn and there were already signs of an economic recovery and that US financial markets were stabilising.
"I'm confident this crisis will finally be over," Wang, China's key economic policymaker, said.
Wang also underscored the benefit of close US-China co-operation for the global economy.
"A more open and dynamic Chinese economy will bring opportunities to all countries in the world, including the United States," he said.
Al Jazeera's Tony Cheng, reporting from Beijing, said with many tricky issues to tackle and just two days of discussions, the talks themselves were unlikely to yield very much.
But he said the talks were significant for the strengthening of the relationship between the two sides and China was taking it very seriously.
And while China appeared to have the upper hand, with its deep pockets and $800bn in US government securities, Beijing recognised the symbiotic nature of the relationship - that us economy needs to improve for China's economy to also flourish, our correspondent said.
At the start of talks on Monday, neither side mentioned publicly past US efforts to persuade China to let its yuan currency appreciate more rapidly, nor was there talk of the wide US trade deficit with China, which hit $681bn in 2008.
Zhang Xiaoqiang, the vice-chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters at the end of the first day of talks that the US side had not pressed the issue, saying "no side is demanding too much".
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo are co-chairing the policy track of the dialogue, which is meant to be held annually, alternating between Washington and Beijing.