Next week, Chinese President Hu Jintao will come to Washington for what will likely be his last official visit to the United States before handing over the reins of the Chinese Communist Party to his handpicked successor, Xi Jinping. The trip represents an effort by both sides to project a healthy U.S.-China relationship and to allow Hu to polish up his legacy.
The Hu-Obama summit, to be held on Jan. 19 at the White House, culminates months of preparatory work by a host of senior officials from throughout the U.S. government. Recognizing that U.S.-China relations have been increasingly strained since China cut off military-to-military ties last February, both sides are seeking a visit that highlights what's positive in the relationship and sets the stage for a warming of ties in the summit's wake.
The preparations began in earnest last September, when then Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and then National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers traveled to Beijing. U.S. defense officials met with their Chinese counterparts in December for "defense consultative talks," a precursor to the resumption of military-to-military ties. In late December, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader traveled to Beijing as well.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates just returned from China, where he formally resumed high-level interactions with the Chinese People's Liberation Army, although his visit was overshadowed by the PLA's decision to test-fly its new stealth fighter plane. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell is on his way back from Beijing now, where he was working on the joint statement to be issued by Hu and Obama after their meeting.
"I think most administration officials would acknowledge that 2010 was a bit of a disappointment in U.S.-China relations… And we go into this summit now with both sides eager to add a little more stability to the relationship," said Michael J. Green, NSC senior director for Asia during the Bush administration. "And ultimately, the summit is not going to be able to fix the structural problem in U.S.-China relations and in Chinese politics, and particularly, the fact that Hu Jintao is essentially a lame duck."
The visit is designed to enable Hu to show that he has been a good and responsible steward of the U.S.-China relationship, said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
On the 19th, Hu will be welcomed with a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House before sitting down for lunch with Vice President Joseph Biden. That evening, he will be honored with a full state dinner. The following day Hu will meet with congressional leaders from both parties and then give a speech to a group of think tank and nongovernmental organization representatives before heading off to Chicago.
In Chicago, Hu will make a speech on economic policy, visit an auto-parts factory where there is Chinese investment, and visit a school that teaches Chinese.
"The Chinese are looking mostly for symbols, optics, face, in the Chinese context. The protocol is very, very important to the Chinese," Glaser said. "They did not get a state visit for Hu Jintao in 2006. They got sort of a mixed visit. He got the White House lawn ceremony, but he did not get the state dinner. Instead, he had a lunch. This time, China is getting, I think, everything that it wants in terms of the symbols of a visit."
There's no final decision yet on what the joint statement will say. The White House will be looking to avoid problematic language, such as the line promising cooperation in South Asia in the last U.S.-China communiqué, which ruffled feathers in New Delhi.
"The November 2009 joint statement was, as Deng Xiaoping said about Mao, was 70 percent good, 30 percent bad," Green explained. "It had a lot of good stuff in it, but the language about India, the language about core interests, didn't succeed in reassuring the Chinese public or building a kind of understanding about continued military-to-military relations and the other things the White House wanted. And on the other hand, it provoked a lot of controversy."
Hu is also bringing four Chinese CEOs in tow, including the head of computer giant Lenovo, the head of a major auto-parts company, and the head of the Chinese Investment Corporation. But don't expect major news on the issues of the U.S.-China trade deficit or on China's currency, which the United States claims is undervalued, analysts say.
"President Hu, I know, will try to showcase the beginning of what everybody outside the Beltway hopes is a wave of Chinese investment into this country, and I think there are some suggestions that there may be hope in that direction," said Charles Freeman Jr. of CSIS. "But I'm not sure that some of the messaging there is going to be effective enough to overcome a lot of the negativity surrounding currency and some of the market access questions."
The White House also wants to restart dialogue with China on human rights and the rule of law, but those efforts are complicated by China's recent clampdown.
"They're not sure they have it, and in any case, Liu Xiaobo and numerous other prominent dissidents are obviously in jail," said Green. "And this is the first time an American president has had -- I think -- has had a state visit with a head of state who is imprisoning a Nobel Peace Prize laureate."
Still, any disagreement on human rights is unlikely to derail the summit. "The goal is to have the U.S. and China narrow the bandwidth of disagreement … to put the relationship in a place where we can actually work on these issues," said Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And what about the flight of the J-20, which according to some reports came as a surprise to Hu when Gates raised it with him? Does this mean the PLA has gone rogue, as suggested this week by Time's Fareed Zakaria?
"It's quite possible that Hu Jintao did not know this flight was going to occur at this time, but the bottom line is that we don't know for sure how the civilian and military leadership interacted regarding this decision," said Carnegie's Michael Swaine, a specialist on the Chinese military.
Other China experts downplayed the reported break between Hu and the PLA as overblown.
"It's not very likely that this test could have occurred without Hu knowing about it in advance," said Zheng Wang, a Chinese scholar and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "He may have simply been surprised that the news of the flight test was publicized so fast that it was able to come up during Gates's meeting with him."