Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to arrive in Washington Tuesday for a state visit replete with ceremonial flourishes but driven by high-priority economic, global security and human rights issues.
After a tense year that saw frequent verbal clashes between Washington and Beijing on everything 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 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 to 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 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 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."
The White House insisted as a condition of the two-day state visit that both Obama and Hu appear before reporters at a news conference and take questions.
The two leaders are scheduled to have a private, working dinner at the White House on Tuesday night, and to headline a formal state dinner on Wednesday.
Hu, who is staying at Blair House, across from the White House, is also expected to tour the new Chinese embassy complex, meet with leading Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill; speak at a lunch of business executives and China-watchers and then travel to Chicago to visit a high school and attend a dinner.
(See more about Hu's schedule during his visit.)
In the days leading up to China's visit, top Obama administration officials such as Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner made speeches laying out Obama's position on key issues.
Clinton said at the State Department on Friday that the United States "will continue to speak out and press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists, when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship, when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions."
Another reminder of differences with China over human rights came Tuesday morning, when the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, was arrested outside the White House for protesting what he called China's persecution of dissidents for their religious and political beliefs.
Mahoney brought with him a chair that he placed on the sidewalk in front of the White House to represent the empty seat from a Dec. 10 ceremony in Oslo, where imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. Mahoney also displayed pictures of Liu and of a Christian woman he said was "brutally beaten by the Chinese government." In a statement, he accused the Obama administration of remaining "painfully silent when it comes to China's utter disregard for human rights and religious freedom."
Geithner, speaking at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said China's unwillingness to allow its currency to rise in value "is not a tenable policy for China or for the world economy."
Chinese officials, in return, said revaluing the yuan would not solve the Chinese trade deficit with the United States. They also said they hoped that Obama would assure Hu during the visit that U.S. debt held by China is secure.
Before leaving China for Washington, Hu expressed hope that his country and the United States could find "common ground" on issues from fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation to cooperating on clean energy and infrastructure development.
"We both stand to gain from a sound China-U.S. relationship, and lose from confrontation," Hu said.