News / Asia

Hu Visit Comes During 'Critical Juncture' for US-China Relations

U.S. President Barack Obama and China's President Hu Jintao (File Photo).
U.S. President Barack Obama and China's President Hu Jintao (File Photo).
William Ide

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives Tuesday in Washington D.C. for a state visit that some political analysts say will be the most important in 30 years. Relations between the two global powerhouses have become increasingly challenged and officials are expected to seek common ground on ways to bolster the world economy as well as air their differences on everything from North Korea to human rights and the value of the Chinese currency.  

The last time China's President Hu Jintao made a state visit to the United States was in April of 2006 when President George W. Bush was in office.

Since then, much has changed.

China has overtaken Japan to become the world's second-largest economy and survived the global financial crisis largely unscathed.  China's international influence is increasing, it has a growing military force and is becoming more assertive on the global stage.

The last year was marked by tense ties, as Washington and Beijing clashed on everything from the value of China's currency to trade disputes, human rights and North Korea.  Many issues are still unresolved and analysts say it is unrealistic to expect major breakthroughs during Mr. Hu's visit to Washington.

"In a way, success will be the atmospherics," said political scientist Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics and Political Affairs. "And to send the message to domestic constituencies on both sides that the relationship is not an antagonistic one.  That there is room for cooperation and that both sides see that that has to be the way forward. Especially with the domestic feelings at China at the moment, which are very complex, very nationalistic, sort of growth in militarism in some quarters, to try to calm that down.  And on the U.S. side, equally to hopefully try and reduce this perception of China as a growing threat."

That is exactly the message, U.S. and Chinese officials have been sending prior to the start of the visit.

In a written interview with the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, President Hu stressed both sides would gain from a sound relationship and lose from confrontation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States does not view China's rise as a threat and is not interested in constraining Beijing's growth. "America and China have arrived at a critical juncture - a time when the choices we make, both big and small, will shape the trajectory of this relationship," she said.

One area in which the United States feels China needs to do more to help improve the trajectory of the relationship is trade.

Although U.S. exports to China are growing, trade figures show the U.S. deficit with China for last year is already on track to surpass the annual record of $268 billion, which was set in 2008.  U.S. officials have spoken repeatedly about growing domestic demand in China and creating a fairer environment.

U.S. officials say American companies are growing increasingly frustrated with policies in China that give a competitive edge to those who make, conceive and design their products in China.  China's undervaluation of its currency is also a point of contention.

U.S. officials, lawmakers and economists argue that a higher yuan would make Chinese products more expensive and help ease the trade imbalance between the two countries.

Mr. Hu's visit will give ample attention to business and trade ties.  In addition to dropping by a meeting of business executives on Wednesday with President Obama, Mr. Hu will deliver his only policy address during the visit Thursday to a group of government officials and business leaders.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue says that while the currency issue will be discussed, the real issue is greater access to Chinese markets. "We are going to work all those things in a positive way.  We are going to press to make sure we have a fair opportunity for American exports, which will create jobs.  And I am looking forward, I have been very engaged in this,  I am looking forward to a very positive visit by President Hu," he said.

Human rights is another area in which U.S. officials hope to change the trajectory of the relationship.  

President Obama is expected to raise the issue when he meets with President Hu this week.  And the issue is likely to come up when the two hold a joint press conference Wednesday.

China has reacted strongly to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and accused the United States and international community of meddling in its internal affairs.

During the summit, Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu are expected to announce the resumption of the U.S.-China "human-rights dialogue," which was suspended last year.  The meeting gives U.S. officials an opportunity to raise concerns with the Chinese government over specific political prisoners and other issues.

But such meetings have been sporadic at best, and have been criticized by rights activists as being fairly empty exercises.  Before last year's dialogue was held in May, the previous one was in May of 2008.  Before that, discussions had not taken place since 2002.

Mr. Hu arrives in Washington late Tuesday and departs Thursday.  His meetings with President Obama, government officials, and business executives on Wednesday will conclude with a formal state dinner.  The last White House state dinner for China was held 13 years ago.

After his stop in Washington, the focus on business will continue when Mr. Hu travels to Chicago.  On Thursday, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley will host a large, corporate-sponsored dinner for Mr. Hu.

Mr. Hu will also visit a Chinese auto parts company, a wind energy company, and Chinese language school in Chicago before returning to China on Friday.

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