WASHINGTON – Washington gets its first hard look Tuesday at Xi Jinping, the man destined to lead China in the coming decade, during which the global powers probably will see their economic ties grow even as they are viewed increasingly as military rivals.
Vice President Xi is set to replace the staid Hu Jintao as Communist Party leader from late this year, then succeed him as president in 2013. The 58-year-old Xi is viewed as more personable, and while his trip is unlikely to herald any policy changes it may signal his leadership style.
Xi arrived Monday, and the highlight of his full four days in America will be an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama. That is a year after a bells-and-whistles state visit by Hu that helped set a positive tone in 2011 for U.S.-China ties.
There have since been bumps along the way, however, and Xi's visit will give the Obama administration a chance to press familiar issues with China, ranging from its worsening treatment of dissidents and the unrest in Tibet, to the vast U.S.-China trade imbalance.
Much of Xi's visit will be in the company of Vice President Joe Biden, who went to China as Xi's guest in August. Xi also will meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who will be hoping to inject some vigor into halfhearted ties between the two militaries. Washington will need to convince a skeptical Beijing that a U.S. "pivot" in its foreign relations to emphasize the economically booming Asia-Pacific is not aimed at containing the rise of China, which in turn, needs to convince the U.S. and many Asian nations not to fear its two-decade military buildup.
Also on the agenda: North Korea, Iran and Syria, following China's decision last week to join Russia in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad's government over its violent crackdown on opponents.
But with Obama vying for re-election this November, and Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney already accusing the incumbent of being soft on China, the administration will be focused particularly on economic issues.
The primary American concern is likely to be on Chinese trade rule violations, but the U.S. also will reiterate problems with intellectual property theft and the value of China's currency. The renminbi has gained a little against the dollar in the past 1 1/2 years but still is viewed by Washington as undervalued to boost exports that still drive China's economy.
Despite the wide array of issues at hand, U.S. officials see Xi's visit primarily as an investment in relationship-building, both on the personal level and to advance a three-year push for cooperative ties with Asia's emerging superpower.
After his visit to China, Biden said he was impressed by Xi's "openness and candor." Xi has impeccable Communist Party credentials as the son of a famed revolutionary, but is viewed as more able at making personal connections than Hu and more willing to step away from the traditional aloofness of Chinese high office.
Emphasizing that, after two days in Washington Xi will travel to Iowa, where he will meet those who hosted him when he visited the Midwestern state as a county official on a 1985 study tour. He then travels to Los Angeles, California, to meet more business leaders.
Hu visited the U.S. in 2002, also shortly before he became China's leader, succeeding the more charismatic Jiang Zemin. As with Hu, the visit will give Xi a chance to burnish his credentials and show the audience back home he can manage ties with the U.S.
The intervening decade since Hu's formative visit has seen big changes, with China now eclipsing Japan as the world's second-largest economy and its military now posing a serious challenge to U.S. predominance in the West Pacific.
In written responses to the Washington Post on the eve of the visit, Xi emphasized the positive. He highlighted the profitability of U.S. companies in China and steps Beijing already has taken to address American economic concerns.
But he also made a dig at U.S. efforts to strengthen its military alliances in Asia -- expressing what U.S. officials have said are hard-line personal views on China's security, sovereignty, and national dignity.