BEIJING – Hu Jintao (search) has set daunting goals for his first trip to Washington as China's (search) president: improving Beijing's image amid strains over its growing military power, rivalry for oil and a soaring U.S. trade deficit.
Hu's visit next week, which includes a White House meeting on Wednesday with President Bush (search), could be the Chinese leader's most important foreign trip since he took office in 2003.
"He is there to promote common interests between the two countries and to try to reduce the `China threat' image," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. "This is a very serious challenge."
Hu's government says his key goal is to promote a benign image of China and ease American economic and security fears, which Beijing worries are ruining relations with Washington — its major trading partner and the last superpower.
In his talks with Bush, Hu is expected to bring up Taiwan — the self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own and whose status has been a thorn in U.S.-Chinese relations.
The contentious issue of China's surging energy demands is also expected to be raised, though officials haven't released details of Hu's agenda.
"The main purpose of his visit is to promote understanding and cooperation, to enable the American general public to understand that China is seeking development through peaceful means," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday.
"We will try to make them understand that we attach importance to our bilateral relations with the United States," he said.
Such a campaign is at odds with the ruling Communist Party's priorities. After a decade of building up trade and political ties abroad, it wants to focus on spreading prosperity to hundreds of millions of people, mostly in the countryside, who have missed out on China's 20-year-old economic boom.
But Chinese leaders have watched with alarm as a series of conflicts have worsened strains with Washington.
In July, a Pentagon report said China's growing military could endanger other Asia-Pacific countries. The next month, state-controlled CNOOC Ltd. dropped its bid to buy Unocal Corp. after claims that the deal could threaten U.S. security.
Also in August, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The New York Times that China must make significant changes in its economic policy. Rice expressed concern about its military buildup and its record on human rights and religious freedom.
"The two sides will need to address their `strategic suspicions,"' said Shi Yinhong, a specialist in international relations at People's University in Beijing.
"Hu Jintao will want to emphasize a China that is motivated by a foreign strategy that promotes peaceful coexistence," Shi said. "Any dialogue will help the two sides establish mutual trust. It won't drive away the deep-seated suspicions, but it will help improve the atmosphere."
If China's ruling circles judge the trip a success, the payoff could be not just smoother relations with Washington, but a stronger hand at home for Hu, who is trying to establish himself as paramount leader after the long rule of predecessor Jiang Zemin, said Cheng, the Hong Kong political scientist.
"An improvement in his image in the eyes of the Chinese people will strengthen his hand and show that he is in control, that he is no longer restrained by Jiang Zemin," Cheng said.
That could help when the ruling Communist Party holds a leadership meeting a few weeks after Hu's return. The president is expected to try to promote allies to key posts such as party secretary for Shanghai — the country's business center and biggest city — which would require forcing out Jiang appointees.
In the United States, Chinese officials say Hu will deliver a speech at Yale University and plans to meet students, factory workers and other members of the public.
It isn't clear whether Hu will try to imitate his predecessors, who won U.S. good will with high-profile media events — Jiang dancing the hula in Hawaii in 1997, and then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping riding a stagecoach in Texas in 1979.
Hu makes an unusual candidate for such a mission.
At home, he has cultivated a low-key, businesslike image that is strikingly different from that of the flamboyant Jiang, who left his final major post last year when Hu replaced him as chairman of the commission that runs China's military.
Hu rarely appears in public. When he does, he is more likely to be seen visiting a coal mine, farm or hospital than hobnobbing with foreign captains of industry.
Hu will arrive in Washington after the failure this week of a second round of U.S.-Chinese talks aimed at settling a dispute over American efforts to rein in surging Chinese imports of underwear, sweaters and other textile goods.
The dispute has taken on political overtones amid American frustration at the soaring U.S. trade deficit with China. It hit $162 billion last year, the highest in history with any country, and Washington says this year's figure is running even higher.
"The most important thing is for Hu Jintao to win the good will of the Bush administration and the American public," said Cheng. "He certainly hopes to convince Americans that there is a lot of room for cooperation for mutual benefit."