Eager to soothe tensions, President 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, was held 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 tonight 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 Rodham Clinton. Hu brought along two top Chinese officials.
For Hu, today's pageantry would be an accomplishment in itself. The United States has stiffened its stance against China after initial entreaties from the Obama administration, and any images of a friendly welcome in the United States 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 Biden and a military honor guard.
Obama plans to host a meeting today 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.
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 United States and U.S. products more expensive in China.
Two senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, sent a letter Tuesday to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner informing him that they plan to introduce legislation that would penalize China if it continues to manipulate its currency.
On security, Hu's visit follows a four-day visit to China by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates aimed at healing rifts between the two militaries. U.S. officials have complained about China's secrecy in its pursuit of conventional weapons.
Perhaps the most confrontational aspect of the relationship is the U.S. view that China engages in human rights violations. Last week, 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 Oslo, Norway.
The White House on Tuesday seemed eager to dispel any suggestion that Obama would not press Hu on human rights.