Hu Jintao arrives for state visit focused on economics, security, human rights

Chinese President Hu Jintao is making his first state visit to the United States.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 4:25 PM

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived Tuesday for a U.S. state visit replete with ceremonial flourishes but driven by high-priority economic, global security and human rights issues.

After a tense year marked by verbal clashes between Washington and Beijing on matters from trade and currency to North Korea and the South China Sea, Hu is seeking to reaffirm China's position as a rising power but also to calm fears over its intentions.

President Obama, meanwhile, wants to refocus attention on China's human rights record, and according to aides will likely make the point that expanded civil liberties could further spur economic innovation in the emerging powerhouse.

Hu and his entourage landed at Andrews Air Force Base, where they were met by Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden. The red-carpet welcome included an honor guard and an Air Force band.

Hu comes to the United States at a time when U.S. policy toward China has hardened across a wide front. Obama came into office expressing a sense that together the United States and China had an opportunity to solve many of the world's problems. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first trip was to Asia and, traveling to China in February 2009, she told reporters that pressing China on human rights issues "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises."

In another sign of goodwill to Beijing early in his administration, Obama became the first president since the 1990s to fail to meet the Dalai Lama during one of the exiled Tibetan leader's trips to Washington.

But China interpreted the U.S. plan to get China to do more as a plot to ensnare China into a web of responsibilities - thereby weakening Beijing - not an opportunity to become more of a world leader.

After U.S. officials, including Clinton and Jeffrey Bader, senior Asia director at the National Security Council, tussled with Chinese security guards at the Copenhagen Climate Conference at the end of 2009, and China reacted strongly to a U.S. decision to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to Taiwan, the Obama administration's tone changed.

In the summer, Clinton led a group of 11 Southeast Asian nations to push back against China's claims to the whole South China Sea. On the economic front, the Obama administration has slapped tariffs on Chinese goods and is challenging China's clean-energy policies. The administration has also directed the U.S. Export-Import Bank to take the unprecedented step of matching China's below-market-rate financing terms on important international business deals.

Tensions between the two countries also flared over how to handle ongoing clashes on the Korean peninsula, with a senior Obama administration official accusing China of "enabling" North Korean provocation in 2010. Over the course of six months, North Korea launched two attacks on South Korea - killing 48 South Korean military personnel and two civilians.

"Despite the positive rhetoric surrounding the Hu visit, the Obama administration today has a greater sense of the limits of cooperation with China," said Daniel Kliman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "The Obama administration will of necessity continue to engage China on global and regional issues, but with diminished expectations."

More broadly, Kliman said, the administration has changed its strategy with China. Obama began his administration apparently thinking that he could engage in trade-offs with China. That seems to be over. "These officials have since realized that you can't bank goodwill in Beijing," he said. "Rather, standing firm is the more effective approach."

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