BEIJING – Chinese leader Hu Jintao is being feted in Washington this week with a lavish state banquet at the White House and other pomp usually reserved for close friends and allies — all intended to improve the tone of relations between a risen, more assertive and prosperous China and the U.S. superpower in a tenuous economic recovery.
The shaky trust between the United States and China has been eroding recently because of an array of issues — currency policies and trade barriers, nuclear proliferation and North Korea, and both sides seem to recognize the need to recalibrate relations.
The U.S. is one of China's biggest markets, with $380 billion in annual trade largely in Beijing's favor. Washington increasingly needs Beijing's help in managing world troubles, from piracy off Africa to Iran's nuclear program and reinvigorating the world economy.
Hu sounded a conciliatory tone in a rare interview with U.S. newspapers ahead of his visit, saying the two countries could mutually benefit by finding "common ground" on issues ranging from combatting terrorism and nuclear proliferation to clean energy and infrastructure initiatives.
"There is no denying that there are some differences and sensitive issues between us," Hu said in written answers to questions submitted by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal which were published over the weekend. "We both stand to gain from a sound China-U.S. relationship, and lose from confrontation."
Hu called for more dialogues and exchanges to enhance "practical cooperation," stressing the need to "abandon the zero-sum Cold War mentality" in U.S.-China relations.
Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Charles Freeman, a former trade negotiator in the George W. Bush administration, said, "It is absolutely critical for the two sides to be setting a tone that says 'hang on a second, we are committed to an effective, positive relationship.'"
The state banquet President Barack Obama is hosting will be Hu's first. In the days before his visit, senior officials from both countries have spoken publicly in favor of better ties.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech Friday that the countries needed to manage their conflicts but their shared interests were so entwined as to constitute entanglement.
"History teaches us that the rise of new powers often ushers in periods of conflict and uncertainty," Clinton said. "Indeed, on both sides of the Pacific, we do see trepidation about the rise of China and the future of the U.S.-China relationship. We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict."
Chinese officials have emphasized what they see as common concerns while acknowledging the complexity of the relationship.
"When the relationship is strained we need to bear in mind the larger picture and not allow any individual issue to disrupt our overall cooperation," Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said in a speech Friday.
Such maxims, however, don't apply to issues China defines as its "core interests," including Taiwan, Tibet, and the overarching authority of the Communist Party. That's a condition Hu's visit won't change.
In his interview for the U.S. newspapers, Hu said the two countries should "respect each other's choice of development path," an implicit rejection of U.S. criticism of China's human rights record and other internal affairs.
Hu, whose four-day trip starts Tuesday, is expected to talk up China's intended peaceful rise in a speech to business leaders and opinion-makers in Washington on Thursday and to highlight the benefits of China's market and investment when visiting Chicago.
Aware of China's plummeting image in American opinion, Chinese Foreign Ministry functionaries have in recent weeks been looking for ways to make the usually stiff Hu, and China as a country, appear more human, something akin to reformist patriarch Deng Xiaoping's donning a 10-gallon hat in Houston in 1979 just after the opening of diplomatic relations.
For the protocol-obsessed Chinese leadership, a highlight of the visit will be Wednesday's state banquet — an honor denied Hu on his last trip to the White House in 2006. President George W. Bush thought state banquets should be reserved for allies and like-minded powers and instead gave Hu a lunch. Even worse, a member of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned by China, disrupted Hu and Bush's joint appearance, and an announcer incorrectly called China "The Republic of China," the formal name of democratically ruled Taiwan.
In this visit, no major agreements are expected. Talks over a joint statement ran aground until last-minute negotiations in Beijing last week. But the shared recognition to put things right and the bumpy relations of the last year augur for a better outcome.
The recent disputes make the summit more necessary than ever, said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University.
"If you look back to relations over the last year, any progress is significant," he said.
A successful visit also stands to raise Hu's standing domestically as he heads toward retirement late next year and seeks to place his political proteges in positions of influence. "A demonstration that Hu can handle the U.S. well and show that China is now well respected by Washington should help Hu to consolidate his legacy," said Oxford University China scholar Steve Tsang.
Still more difficult will be stopping the larger drift in relations amid the countries' changing fortunes. Beijing feels its economic, military and diplomatic strength entitles it to more deference while Washington tries to shore up its superpower authority, forging alliances and ties with other countries amid the changing global order.
While the U.S. is weighted down by high unemployment, massive budget deficits and sluggish growth, China has roared ahead, with the economy expanding 9.6 percent in the third quarter of last year.
The U.S. wants Beijing to move toward faster appreciation of its currency to boost U.S. exports and reduce unemployment. But in his written answers to the U.S. newspapers, Hu did not signal any significant changes in China's currency policy.
China now holds the world's largest foreign currency reserves at $2.85 trillion and a major chunk of U.S. government debt. At current rates, economists estimate China will overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy within 20 years, possibly by the end of this decade. That transition could be bumpy, with China's authoritarian one-party communist political system and sense of historical grievance setting it at odds with the democratic West.
Hu said "the current international currency system is the product of the past," but he did not dispute the U.S. dollar's role as the global reserve currency. He said it "will be a fairly long process" before the Chinese renminbi can become an international reserve currency.
Feeling its oats, Beijing has largely rebuffed U.S. appeals for help in reining in bellicose North Korea, curbing Iran's nuclear program and dismantling of trade barriers. Chinese officials and the nationalistic state-run media have criticized Washington's renewed attention to Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia, its arms sales to Taiwan and its continued naval patrols in the Yellow and South China seas as attempts to constrain China's influence in its backyard.
Chinese officials have accused the U.S. of orchestrating the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. And just last week, Chinese military commanders greeted U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' offer for closer military dialogue by sending a prototype for a new stealth fighter on its first test-flight.
In recent months, about the only thing the two seem to have agreed on is that the U.S. and China did not have enough common ground to form a Group of 2, or "G-2", to solve the world's troubles.
The U.S.-China relationship "is as important as any bilateral relationship in the world," Clinton said Friday. "But there is no such thing as a G-2. Both of our countries reject that concept."