The White House is to throw a lavish reception for the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, on Wednesday in an effort to patch up relations after a difficult year dominated by tensions over currency rates, jobs, North Korea and other international issues.President Hu is due in Washington tomorrow for the start of a four-day visit, the highlight of which is to be a state dinner at the White House on Wednesday evening.
Hu is to go from Washington to Chicago on Thursday for two days. The mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, announcing details of the visit last week, including a gala dinner as well as trips to a Chinese car spare parts factory and a Chinese language school, reflected US excitement about the trip. “It is a big deal. Big, big, big, big. Big deal,” Daley said.
Given China’s pivotal role in the global economy and in foreign affairs, it is the most important state visit of the Obama presidency so far. Obama needs China’s help in turning the US economy round, particularly in creating jobs, and in resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula and exerting pressure on Iran.
China analysts in Washington expressed little hope of any substantial agreement on economics or foreign affairs and said the importance of the meeting was the opportunity for the two to establish a good personal relationship.
A US economics team sent to Beijing to help negotiate agreements to be announced this week returned to Washington last Friday reporting a lack of progress so far. Instead there are a series of small US-China business deals, about 40 so far, to be announced in Chicago.
Hu is to attend a small dinner at the White House evening with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the White House national security adviser, Tom Donilon.
The black-tie dinner at the White House on Wednesday night contrasts with George Bush’s workmanlike lunch in 2006. According to Chinese media reports at the time, Hu, who, like other Chinese leaders, places a lot of importance on protocol, saw Bush’s arrangements as insulting. Bush was unwilling to host a state dinner in part because he was conscious of US public concern over China’s human rights record.
Unlike 2006, this will be a state visit, with all the ceremony that entails. It will be the first US state dinner for a Chinese leader in 13 years. The president and first lady will greet Hu on arrival at the White House, followed by a review of troops, lengthy talks, a joint press conference and the dinner. The White House has not yet released details of who will be the chef or who will provide the entertainment.
Human rights demonstrators, pro-Tibet supporters, Uighurs, Taiwanese and others are planning to pursue Hu on every leg of his trip, and are to hold a rally and candlelit vigil outside the White House during the state dinner.
Douglas Paal, one of the leading US analysts on China and vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previewing the visit last week, said it will allow the US and China to move past a turbulent year. “We’ve had tensions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea; with North Korea; and over other issues including economics. This is a chance to pull things back together again and we’ve seen this opportunity developing over the last few months since the notion of a state visit was put on the agenda in September,” Paal said.
A slight improvement in exchange rates from a US point of view has taken some of the sting out of currency tensions. Members of Congress had been planning to name China as a currency manipulator, a move that could sour relations but that now seems to be on hold.
But there are still problems. Democratic congressman Mike Michaud is circulating a letter in the House hoping to gather signatures to send to Obama asking him to tell Hu that consistent violations of international trade law will no longer be tolerated. “China’s disregard for its World Trade Organisation membership directly hurts the US economy and impedes our ability to recover from the economic downturn,” Michaud said.
Members of Congress are also focusing on China’s human rights record. Several members are hosting a press conference that includes two leaders from the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Chai Ling and Yang Jianli, and Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in Chinese labour camps.