The man widely expected to be president of China by this time next year - Hu Jintao - is making his first official trip to the United States. He starts his visit Saturday in Hawaii, is scheduled to hold talks in Washington Tuesday and Wednesday, and also plans to visit New York and San Francisco. Analysts in the United States see this as an opportunity for President Bush to establish a better rapport with the next generation of Chinese leaders.
China historian Merle Goldman calls Hu Jintao a mystery man to most people outside China. The Chinese Communist Party is expected to decide at its party congress in October that Vice President Hu should be elevated to the presidency, and the decision is expected to be approved by China's legislature next March.
Professor Goldman, with the Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, said Mr. Hu's U.S. trip is very important for China to show its new leadership. She said it also gives President Bush and other U.S. officials a chance to size up what kind of a leader Mr. Hu will be. Ms. Goldman noted that Mr. Hu is closer in age to Mr. Bush than the current Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who is about 20 years older.
"So far, in the meetings between President Bush and Jiang Zemin, they've been very formal and there doesn't seem to be much rapport between President Bush and Jiang Zemin. It might have to do with age, it might have to do with outlook. But whatever it is, there doesn't seem to be the kind of rapport that President Bush, for example, has been able to establish with President Putin of Russia. And so I think that this is important for China in order to set up a working relationship with the United States," Ms. Goldman said.
Last year, Vice President Hu visited Russia, Britain, France, Spain and Germany, and his current trip includes stops in Malaysia and Singapore. China specialist Charles Horner, at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said these international forays are intended to raise Mr. Hu's standing abroad and at home.
"To the degree which this introduction of Vice President, soon to be President, Hu on the world scene develops his standing in the Chinese political system, gives him credibility as the future leader of China, increases as they say in Chinese his "wei" - his awe - among the other political players, that's probably what he's after at this point," Mr. Horner said.
Bonnie Glaser, a Washington-based consultant on Asian affairs, notes that Hu Jintao's daughter went to school in the United States, has lived here for several years, and has probably talked to her father about it. But Ms. Glaser has said it's important that Mr. Hu get a chance to become acquainted with the United States and see it for himself before he assumes his new job as president.
Several contentious issues in U.S.-Chinese relations, such as weapons proliferation and human rights, will likely be discussed during Mr. Hu's meetings in Washington. Ms. Glaser also expects Vice President Hu to raise China's concerns about the expansion of U.S. military ties with Taiwan, and she says the U.S. response will be clear.
"We do have obligations to provide Taiwan materials for its defense, and as long as China continues to increase the threat to Taiwan, as long as its intentions appear to be not completely benign, but possibly including the use in the future of military force to coerce Taiwan, that this administration is not going to stand by and do nothing, and that this is in fact the driver behind the steps that the U.S. is taking with Taiwan," she said. "At the same time, I think that American officials will underscore that we do not support Taiwan independence, and our steps to strengthen our relationship with Taiwan are not aimed at that goal."
Ms. Glaser said the Chinese vice president may also raise concerns about the increased U.S. presence in Central Asia - an area that China sees as its own sphere of influence. She said the United States will offer assurances that it has no intention to contain or encircle China.
And Ms. Glaser said the United States will send Mr. Hu home with a strong message about the need to respect human rights and religious freedom - something she said President Bush feels strongly about and is likely to raise personally with the Chinese leader.
Analysts note that in his few previous public appearances, Vice President Hu has always spoken the official line. His visit to Washington is likely to include opportunities for more informal conversations which could give U.S. leaders some insight into Mr. Hu's own views on important issues.