|The talks in Washington covered a range of economic and diplomatic issues [AFP]
The US president and senior administration officials have urged China to improve its human rights record, saying that progress in that area would boost its own prosperity.
Barack Obama raised concerns about the human rights situation in China in talks with Wang Qishan, the Chinese vice-premier, and the state councillor, Dai Bingguo, at the White House in Washington on Monday.
The White House talks followed a day of meetings between US and Chinese officials themed "Strategic and Economic Dialogue", aimed at letting the two nations manage, if not resolve, their often tense policy differences.
With senior Chinese officials at her side, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, voiced alarm about recent disappearances of human rights lawyers and other perceived critics in recent months.
"Now, like any two great nations – in fact, I would argue like any two people – we have our differences. And like friends, we discuss those differences honestly and forthrightly," said Clinton.
"We will be continuing the discussion of the recent US-China Human Rights Dialogue just held in Beijing. We have made very clear, publicly and privately, our concern about human rights. We worry about the impact on our domestic politics and on the politics and the stability in China and the region."
Clinton said the US had seen reports "of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists, and others, who are detained or disappeared".
"And we know over the long arch of history that societies that work towards respecting human rights are going to be more prosperous, stable, and successful. That has certainly been proven time and time again, but most particularly in the last months," she said, citing recent democracy protests in the Middle East as an example.
Dissidents in detention
China's crackdown on dissent since February has led to the detention of dozens of dissidents, human rights advocates, and prominent grassroots protesters.
A Chinese human rights defender, Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel prize last year remains in detention and his wife Liu Xia was placed under house arrest last October.
Joe Biden, the US vice-president, joined Clinton to voice concerns about a crackdown on dissidents in China.
"We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights," he said as the talks began.
The Chinese swiftly reacted to the charges, with the vice-premier describing US views of his country as "simple" and ruling out a Middle East-style democracy uprising in his country.
In a rare foreign television interview in Washington, Wang said US media coverage of China was simplistic and biased.
"It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilisation and we are of the Oriental culture," Wang told The Charlie Rose Show on public television, according to a transcript.
"The United States is the world's number one superpower, and the American people, they're very simple people," he said.
"If they're asked to choose to understand a foreign country, their first choice would be the European countries, and the South American countries may come second."
The two-day conference, which started on Monday, also tackled economic issues with Obama urging Chinese leaders to implement policies to help create a more balanced economic relationship between Washington and Beijing.
Vice-premier Wang said that while the global economy was slowly recovering, the situation was "complicated and fraught with uncertainties".
He said Japan's earthquake, excess liquidity in global money markets and the Middle East unrest had all seriously damaged market confidence.
Wang, co-chair of the economic talks with Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, said it would take time to correct global economic imbalances - such as China's bulging trade surpluses and corresponding deficits in the US - and implied that Washington had more to do than Beijing.
"The key to a global economic recovery still lies with the United States," Wang said. "We are pleased to note that the US economy is gradually improving and the Chinese economy as a whole is in good shape."
Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at China's Tsinghua University, told Al Jazeera that tensions appeared to be "easing partly because Congress in the US is focused on other domestic issues - the budget and that will preoccupy them probably throughout the year".
"From the US point of view, China is moving a little bit more closely towards the US position. You do have appreciation in the renminbi [yuan] and you also have inflation in China: rising wages; rising cost which, in effect, has the same effect on trade as appreciation of the renminbi. Both of these things are pushing ... in the direction that the US wants to see China go," he said.
China, the United States' biggest creditor, is concerned that its vast holdings of dollar-based assets could suffer as the US currency declines.
But it stopped short of openly criticising loose US monetary and budgetary policies which it had previously argued were weakening the dollar.