WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama lavished the grandest of White House welcomes on Chinese President Hu Jintao as the leaders of the two powers looked 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 US 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 followed an up-and-down two years in which an assertive China initially cold-shouldered the US on climate change, did little to reel in its unpredictable ally North Korea and responded limply to US pleas to mitigate trade imbalances. For its part, the US riled China with arms sales to Taiwan and by inviting Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to the White House.
Hu was welcomed on arrival Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base by Vice President Joe Biden and then attended the first of two dinners Obama is hosting for him during his four-day US 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. A full state dinner at the White House in the evening will be the ceremonial highlight.
Obama planned to host a meeting Wednesday afternoon for Hu and US and Chinese business leaders to promote increased US 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 US executives.
US 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 US and US products more expensive in China.
While the agenda was packed with weighty issues, expectations remain modest.
Hu's visit came 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 US, as nations such as Japan, South Korea and even Vietnam have looked to cement stronger ties with the US as a regional power.
The US 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 US congresswoman. His previously stellar poll ratings have begun to recover after months in the doldrums.
That shift in fortunes was unlikely to translate into major concessions from Hu, but Obama may have encountered a more amenable Chinese leader, who will be looking to burnish China's image in the US 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 US government debt. Economists predict it could become the world's largest economy, eclipsing the US, 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.
Last week, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that if Beijing wants more investment opportunities in the US and access to high technology products, it also must allow a more level playing field for US 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 US-China relations.
Obama's state dinner for Hu, only the third of his presidency, came 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.
Secretary of State 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.