The arrival of Chinese President Hu Jintao in the United States brings him face to face with an Obama administration that has grown more hard-nosed about the course of what is arguably the most important relationship the United States maintains with a foreign power.
Hu landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday afternoon and had a private dinner with President Obama before substantive talks were to begin Wednesday on security, economic and political issues. Hu will meet congressional and business leaders in Washington on Thursday before heading to Chicago for a day.
The summit with Obama will probably be Hu's last as China's president; he is set to retire in 2012 and be replaced by the vice president, Xi Jinping. One tangible outcome of the summit is expected to be an invitation to Vice President Biden to go to China, which would set the scene for Xi to visit the United States, a rite of passage for those about to rise to the chairmanship of China's Communist Party.
Analysts say Hu is eager to burnish his legacy as a competent steward of China's ties with the United States. But he will find an administration that views his government with significant misgivings.
Obama entered office expressing a sense that together the United States and China had an opportunity to solve many of the world's problems. Indeed, unique among presidents dating to Richard M. Nixon, Obama entered office striking a gentle tone toward China.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a trip to China in February 2009 that pressing the country 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, 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 after a difficult summit in China that November, followed by clashes over climate change and a $6.4 billion weapons sales package to Taiwan in January 2010, the attitude among U.S. officials changed. Google's decision to pull out of China, along with its allegations that the Chinese government had hacked into one of its servers, added tension to the relationship. And Beijing's outraged opposition to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo further convinced U.S. officials that China was not interested in accommodating Western concerns over human rights.
In July, Clinton led a group of 11 Southeast Asian nations in resisting 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 on important international business deals.
Tensions between the two countries also flared over how to handle the Korean Peninsula, with a senior Obama administration official accusing China of "enabling" North Korea's military brinksmanship. Over six months in 2010, North Korea launched two attacks on South Korea - killing 48 soldiers 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 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 he could win support in Beijing by doing China favors. That notion seems to have dissipated. "These officials have since realized that you can't bank goodwill in Beijing," he said. "Rather, standing firm is the more effective approach."
The new attitude was in evidence last week.
During the 2009 summit, as difficult as it was, the two sides released a long communique about U.S.-China relations. This time, it remains unclear whether there will be one - despite indications that Hu wants one.
In 2009, Obama played down human rights issues by postponing his meeting with the Dalai Lama. Last week, Obama met with Chinese dissidents and human rights advocates and discussed how he could use U.S. leverage to push China to improve its record.
It was also apparent in speeches by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, both of whom were blunt to the point of pugnacity. Near the end of his speech, Geithner put China on notice that if it wanted progress on its demands for a better investment climate in the United States and more access to U.S. technology, it had better bend to U.S. demands that China allow the value of its currency to rise and open its markets to U.S. firms. In the past, U.S. officials had avoided such threats.
Clinton, who once trod gently on the question of pushing a human rights agenda, gave a full-throated defense Friday of U.S. values and put the Chinese on notice that it would figure importantly in the future, as well.