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U.S.-China trade and defense ties are among issues on agenda during Hu Jintao's visit.
President Hu Jintao of China is set to arrive in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday for a four-day state visit to discuss issues ranging from North Korea to Chinese currency and military cooperation.
The visit, billed as the most important by a Chinese leader in 30 years and one of the most important of the Obama presidency, will likely set the stage for future relations between the United States and China.
However, the visit comes amid concern that Hu lacks the leadership strength within his party and country to make commitments that will have a dramatic impact on the U.S.-China relationship.
"China is far wealthier and more influential, but Mr. Hu also may be the weakest leader of the Communist era," states The New York Times. "He is less able to project authority than his predecessors were — and perhaps less able to keep relations between the world’s two largest economies from becoming more adversarial."
The Obama administration has feared that Hu's power is limited by a diffuse ruling party controlled more by generals, ministers and business interests than the president.
Significant secrecy surrounding the Chinese government also weakens Hu's role and makes it difficult for the United States and China to smooth bilateral ties, reports the Wall Street Journal. Within the Community Party leadership, Hu is a "mere senior among equals" and cannot act in such a manner that it would appear he is overstepping his bounds.
The secrecy could hinder efforts to humanize the relationship and prevent Americans from gaining a better understanding of the Chinese leader, according to Liu Weidong, a researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a Beijing think tank.
Hu will be further limited by his own people, whose strong nationalism will prevent him from making any dramatic policy changes, writes Harvard University professor and author Joseph Nye on the Huffington Post.
Analysts in Washington expressed little hope of any substantial agreement on economics or foreign affairs, but said the importance of the meeting was the opportunity for the two leaders to establish a good personal relationship.
In contrast to his last state visit, in April of 2006, when President George W. Bush was in office, Hu — a 67-year-old hydroelectric engineer who has held the top office since 2002 — is to be honored at a lavish state dinner on Wednesday night, a gesture usually reserved for close friends and allies of the United States.
However, according to GlobalPost's Jonathan Adams, observers were struggling ahead of Hu's visit to "define a thorny relationship that increasingly defies characterization."
"Last year the two countries grappled with a long list of issues that bedeviled relations: How to deal with North Korea, the value of China's currency, a massive trade gap, the South China Sea, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, climate change and the Dalai Lama, just for starters," Adams wrote.
Relations between the two global powerhouses were further strained this week, when the Chinese military conducted the inaugural flight test of a new stealth warplane, the J-20, just as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was about to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Gates had traveled to Beijing hoping to ease tensions with the Chinese military, which had reached a nadir since U.S. President Barack Obama took office.
The high-profile test flight created confusion, and much speculation, about the message Gates' hosts were sending.
Territorial and human rights issues have also caused much tension, specifically the Dalai Lama's earlier U.S. visit and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, as have rows over internet freedom and arms sales to Taiwan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed U.S. concerns on China's human rights record at length in a major speech on U.S.-Chinese relations on Friday, making the case that "the longer China represses freedoms, the longer . . . empty chairs in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation's unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise."
Beijing, meanwhile, has long wanted Washington to stop selling arms to Taiwan, a self-governing island that China considers part of its territory.
But these are part of a bigger issue that Beijing and Washington will need to resolve, writes Michael Bristow, Beijing correspondent for the BBC. At issue is how to manage their changing relationship.
"China might currently be the junior partner but, as it grows stronger, it will want a greater say in how the world is run, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region," he writes, adding that an example of China's growing assertiveness in territorial matters is the increased rhetoric of China's leaders over claims on the seas around the country.
Whatever the political issues, the leaders of both nations say they want to show that the U.S.-China relationship, which was on the skids last year, is back on track and is mutually beneficial, according to The Wall Street Journal.
To this aim, the United States is pressing China to buy tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aircraft, auto parts, agricultural goods and beef to build goodwill.
And since Hu's last state visit, in 2006, before the global financial crisis that plunged the United States into a deep recession, China has become the world's second-largest economy.
And Chinese deal-making is part of nearly all of their state visits abroad — it announced $16 billion in deals in India last month.
Myron Brilliant, senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, suggested that Hu would “come with gifts. He will come with contracts.” In an interview with Forbes, he said that China saw the visit as an opportunity to show that it is open for business and advised keeping an eye out for deals announced on the sidelines Wednesday, and Hu’s remarks at Thursday’s lunch.
A U.S. economics team was sent to Beijing to help negotiate agreements to be announced this week, but returned to Washington last Friday reporting a lack of progress.
But Chinese and U.S. businesses signed deals worth $600 million in Texas on Monday, Chinese state media reported. The six agreements were signed during a visit to the oil-rich state by a delegation of Chinese businessmen led by vice commerce minister Wang Chao.
The value of China's currency is another hot button issue. On Monday, a group of U.S. senators said it was vital that Congress pass legislation to get tough with China over its currency practices, Reuters reported.
"There's no bigger step we can take to preserve the American dream and promote job creation, particularly in the manufacturing sector ... than to confront China's manipulation of its currency," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said in a conference call on a proposed bill to pressure China to raise the value of its currency, as reported by Reuters.
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