WASHINGTON — Eager to soothe tensions, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao shared an unusual and intimate dinner Tuesday night to discuss the strains and common goals that define the complicated relations between the two rival powers.
The private dinner, in the Old Family Dining Room in the White House residence, came amid disputes over China's currency, trade and human rights policies and a search for cooperation on national security. It preceded a planned pomp-filled gala for Hu on Wednesday night and illustrated Obama's careful mix of warmth and firmness for the leader of a nation that is at once the largest U.S. competitor and most important potential partner.
Also at the dinner were national security adviser Tom Donilon and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Hu brought along two top Chinese officials. Underscoring the desire for candor, the White House said there were no official note-takers at the dinner and offered no readout of the discussions.
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For Hu, Wednesday's pageantry would be an accomplishment in itself. The U.S. has stiffened its stance against China after initial entreaties from the Obama administration, and any images of a friendly welcome in the U.S. could serve to polish Hu's image at home and abroad and to soften the American public's suspicions about China.
Hu received red carpet treatment upon landing Tuesday afternoon at a wet Andrews Air Force Base, where he was greeted by Vice President Joe Biden and a military color guard.
For Obama, the visit represents an opportunity to carry out the engagement he promised would be a trademark of his foreign policy. But Obama is also under pressure to show resolve as a range of interest groups — from business leaders to human rights advocates — press the administration to stand up to Beijing.
The New York Times pointed to tough statements made by several cabinet officials in recent days, saying they indicated the administration was seeking to take an assertive stance with the Chinese leader.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned the U.S. would step up military investment to counter China's increasing military strength; Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said China should allow its currency to gain value; and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the country's human rights record, raising the case of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
"There's been this well-orchestrated and clearly well thought-out campaign, over the past two weeks, involving the secretary of state, Treasury, defense and commerce making strong statements regarding currency, the trade imbalance, human rights and China's military stance," David Rothkopf, a national security expert who worked in President Bill Clinton's administration, told the Times.
"So you're welcoming the leader of the most important rival power in the world into the capital, and the way you pave his entrance into the city is laid with these four big thorny issues," he added.
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"Whether we're dealing with economic discussions, whether we're dealing with those in the security realm, or whether we're doing those with human rights, I think this is an argument that we have and we'll continue to make to the Chinese and push them to do better," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
A key moment will come Wednesday when Obama and Hu appear at a brief news conference. The two will take four questions — two from U.S. journalists and two from Chinese reporters. The White House insisted that the two leaders face reporters.
In China, Hu's public appearances are always under controlled circumstances that don't lend themselves to spontaneity. Hu did take questions at a 2005 news conference with President George W. Bush in Beijing, but he refused to do so when Obama visited in 2009.
Obama plans to host a meeting Wednesday afternoon for Hu and U.S. and Chinese business leaders to promote increased U.S. exports to China and greater Chinese investment in the United States. Among those scheduled to attend are CEOs Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Greg Brown of Motorola, Jim McNerney of Boeing and nine other U.S. executives.
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U.S. companies have been longtime critics of Chinese policies that kept its currency low relative to the dollar. A low-priced yuan makes Chinese products cheaper in the U.S. and U.S. products more expensive in China.
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But with the yuan rising 3.5 percent against the dollar since June, the currency dispute has in part given way to U.S. complaints about theft of intellectual property and barriers to Chinese contracts for U.S. firms.
In a letter to Obama on Tuesday, a coalition of financial organizations urged the president to prod the Chinese to open up its financial services sector to greater competition. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said the business community wants to make sure the U.S. continues a trend to expand exports to China and added that he worries China is showing favoritism to domestic industries.
"We're going to press to make sure that we have a fair opportunity for American exports which will create jobs," Donohue said.
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On security, Hu's visit comes in the aftermath of a four-day visit to China by Defense Secretary Robert Gates aimed at healing rifts between the two militaries. U.S. officials have complained about China's secrecy in its pursuit of conventional weapons. The Chinese had earlier pulled out of military talks and withheld an earlier invitation to Gates in protest of a nearly $6.4 billion arms sale to China's rival, Taiwan.
The U.S. considers China a vital player in attempts to contain North Korean aggression against South Korea and its development of a nuclear weapon. The U.S. also needs Chinese support to increase pressure on Iran, as China is a U.N. Security Council member.
Among the security issues that remain unresolved between the two countries are Chinese objections to the U.S. view that it has the right to sail its ships in waters that China claims as restricted.
Perhaps the most confrontational aspect of the relationship is the U.S. view that China engages in human rights violations. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bluntly called for the release of jailed Chinese dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was prevented from attending the Dec. 10 prize ceremony in the Norwegian capital.
The White House on Tuesday seemed eager to dispel any suggestion that Obama would not press Hu on human rights.
"That is a topic of some significance that the two leaders will talk about," Gibbs said. "We will continue to have difficult conversations . that had to be had with China."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.