By Matthew Pennington
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is lavishing the grandest of White House welcomes on Chinese President Hu Jintao as the leaders of the two powers look for common ground on economic and security issues without alienating their domestic audiences.
With many Americans blaming China at least in part for the high U.S. unemployment rate, both presidents will be looking to build trust in a relationship grounded in mutual interest but troubled by intractable disputes.
Hu’s visit follows an up-and-down two years in which an assertive China initially cold-shouldered the United States on climate change, did little to reel in its unpredictable ally North Korea, and responded limply to U.S. pleas to mitigate trade imbalances. For its part, the United States riled China with arms sales to Taiwan and by inviting Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to the White House.
Both sides are now setting a more positive tone.
Hu was welcomed on arrival Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base by Vice President Joe Biden. He then attended the first of two dinners that Obama is hosting for him during his four-day U.S. stay.
Obama was joined at Tuesday night’s private dinner, in the Old Family Dining Room in the White House residence, by national security adviser Tom Donilon and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hu brought along two top Chinese officials. Underscoring the desire for candor, the White House said there were no official note-takers at the dinner and offered no readout of the discussions.
The private dinner preceded a pomp-filled welcoming ceremony on Wednesday and illustrated Obama’s careful mix of warmth and firmness for the leader of a nation that is at once the largest U.S. competitor and most important potential partner.
After talks Wednesday morning, the two leaders will hold a joint news conference at the White House — just four questions allowed, two from U.S. journalists and two from Chinese reporters. They are expected to announce an agreement to establish a jointly financed nuclear security center in China.
A full state dinner at the White House in the evening will be the ceremonial highlight.
Obama plans to host a meeting Wednesday afternoon for Hu and U.S. and Chinese business leaders to promote increased U.S. exports to China and greater Chinese investment in the United States. Among those scheduled to attend are CEOs Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Greg Brown of Motorola, Jim McNerney of Boeing, and nine other U.S. executives.
U.S. companies have been longtime critics of Chinese policies that kept its currency low relative to the dollar. A low-priced yuan makes Chinese products cheaper in the United States and U.S. products more expensive in China.
While the agenda is packed with weighty issues, expectations remain modest.
“Overcoming the sense of mistrust is probably the most important thing,” said Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Hu’s visit comes as the political trajectory has shifted for both nations.
China’s success in weathering the global economic crisis coincided with an increasing confidence — critics would say brashness — on the world stage and worries among its neighbors in Asia over its growing military clout. Ultimately, that distrust has benefited the United States, as nations such as Japan, South Korea, and even Vietnam have looked to cement stronger ties with the United States as a regional power.
The U.S. economy has shown signs of recovery and Obama also has rebounded from his own political problems, notably the loss of one chamber of Congress to the Republican Party in the November elections at the midpoint of his term. A nuclear arms reduction treaty he orchestrated with Russia was approved, and he has been lauded for a touchstone speech in the aftermath of the shooting massacre in Arizona that left six dead and 13 wounded, including a U.S. congresswoman. His previously stellar poll ratings have begun to recover after months in the doldrums.
That shift in fortunes is unlikely to translate into major concessions from Hu, but Obama may encounter a more amenable Chinese leader, who will be looking to burnish China’s image in the United States and his own standing before he steps down in 2012.
Stiff and media-averse, Hu, 67, has been in power since 2002. While lacking the charisma of predecessors Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping, he has presided over a remarkable rise in China’s economy.
China now holds the world’s largest foreign currency reserves at $2.85 trillion and a major chunk of U.S. government debt. Economists predict it could become the world’s largest economy, eclipsing the United States, within 20 years if not sooner.
But perceived diplomatic missteps and reports that Hu was unaware when he met this month with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about a test flight of China’s new stealth fighter have raised questions over his control of the military.
The grandeur of a White House state dinner — the first for a Chinese leader in 13 years — could go some way toward reasserting Hu’s stature in status-conscious China, where ceremony often has greater resonance than in the West.
But Hu, who will later lead a business delegation to Chicago, faces an uphill task in showing Americans that China’s rise can benefit the United States — beyond plugging the federal deficit with low-interest loans and offering cheaper goods to consumers.
In a starkly partisan U.S. political atmosphere, slamming China for unfair trade practices is one thing that both Republicans and Democrats can agree upon. This week, lawmakers from both parties announced plans for legislation to punish China for what they say is an undervalued currency that boosts its exports at the expense of U.S. manufacturers.
The Obama administration remains leery of steps that would infuriate China, favoring persuasion instead.
Clinton, interviewed Wednesday on ABC television, said a principal aim of this week’s talks is to level the playing field on trade.
“We want a competition where nobody’s got their thumb or fist on the scale,” she said.
Last week, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that if Beijing wants more investment opportunities in the United States and access to high technology products, it must allow a more level playing field for U.S. companies in China.
Washington will further seek common ground on North Korea amid recent signs that China has increased pressure on Pyongyang to moderate its behavior and return to negotiations after two military strikes against South Korea risked setting off a conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Shared interests, however, are unlikely to stretch to the arena of human rights — often a fly in the ointment of U.S.-China relations.
Obama’s state dinner for Hu, only the third of his presidency, comes just a month after Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese lecturer jailed for calling for reform of the one-party system, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but barred from attending the ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
Clinton last week appealed for China to tolerate dissent and assume the responsibilities of a world power in the 21st century. Her call for Liu’s release is likely to fall on deaf ears. ♦