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China, U.S. eager to put a happy face on relations

The rhetoric in advance of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington that begins Tuesday sounds like an endless loop of the Communist Party’s favorite buzzwords: Stability. Harmony. Cooperation.

It speaks to the image that Beijing wants to project to Americans — that of a benign giant whose rise will only benefit its neighbors and trading partners. But it’s also a matter of self-interest. Selling that image abroad is key to ensuring that China can keep its economy booming at a time when its growth is alarming large parts of the world.

The White House is answering smiles with smiles: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke all made major speeches last week on the importance of U.S.-Chinese cooperation while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was doing much the same in Beijing.

“You can’t find another instance where you have all these different Cabinet-level officials giving speeches before a leader arrives in country,” said Kenneth Lieberthal of the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

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If it all seems excessive, it may be overcompensation for what had been a particularly difficult year. The year opened with a $6-billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan that infuriated the Chinese. The United States and China squabbled over the South China Sea and North Korea. And when imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, Beijing tried to bully other countries into boycotting the award ceremony.

Beijing appeared to realize that its behavior was at cross purposes with its long-term strategy, pushing neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India closer to the U.S. fold, and inspiring some discussion of containment.

“We want America to feel more assured with China’s presence in the world,” said Shen Dingli, an American studies expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

In comments published Monday in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, Hu said the United States and China should “pursue common development through win-win cooperation.”

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Since Hu’s last visit to Washington in 2006, China’s gross domestic product has nearly doubled, allowing it to leapfrog past Germany and Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Its sustained rapid growth gives it plenty of potential clout on the world stage.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations specialist at People’s University in Beijing, says he expected a subdued tone from the Chinese delegation in Washington.

“The tone will be modest and prudent,” Shi said. “We want to make clear in a modest tone that we want to stabilize the relationship and that there is no attempt to challenge U.S. hegemony.”

More cynical analysts say such studied modesty is disingenuous. “The strategy is to contain anti-China forces in the United States,” said Lin Chong-pin, a former Taiwanese defense official who teaches international relations at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.

Although Beijing tries to downplay its strength, it keeps reminding the world of its newfound clout. In September, Japan claimed that a Chinese fishing boat deliberately rammed a coast guard vessel near disputed islands; after the captain was arrested, China suspended shipments to Japan of rare-earth elements vital to high-technology products.

The disconnect between rhetoric and action was most apparent last week when the People’s Liberation Army conducted its first test flight of a new stealth fighter the same day Gates was meeting with Hu. Pentagon officials traveling with Gates were concerned that Hu, who also is chairman of the Central Military Commission and secretary-general of the Communist Party, appeared not to have been informed in advance, raising questions about who controls China’s military.

In recent months, China has been using its deep pockets to rescue ailing European governments, a strategy that could discourage voices criticizing the country’s human rights record and trade violations.

Keeping its export economy booming creates jobs and increases prosperity in a nation that still has hundreds of millions of impoverished people.

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China for years has faced pressure from Washington to let the value of its currency rise, which would increase the cost of its exports. But Chinese officials are also grappling with the downside of keeping the value of their currency low: Inflation is driving up the cost of imported food and other goods and leading to unrest in some parts of the country.

Hu arrives in Washington on Tuesday night and spends Wednesday in meetings with Obama and other officials before a black-tie dinner that night. He then travels to Chicago, where he is to speak to the U.S.-China Business Council and probably visit a Chinese-owned company, emphasizing his country’s economic partnership with the U.S.

The Chinese were disappointed with Hu’s reception in 2006, which was labeled by the George W. Bush White House as an “official visit,” not a “state visit,” which meant Hu got a lunch, not a dinner.

The weeks before this summit have already seen some moves to repair the Sino-U.S. relationship. In anticipation, the Chinese last month restored military contacts that had been suspended after the arms sale to Taiwan.

Beijing acted to rein in the North Korean government in Pyongyang last month when tensions spiraled over the shelling of a South Korean island. And Geithner said in his speech Friday that the exchange rate, when adjusted for inflation, already had undergone a “very substantial, meaningful shift.”

“If you wonder what are the ‘deliverables’ that will come out of this summit, they’ve already been delivered,” said Lieberthal of Brookings.

The bigger question is whether the relatively good tone will endure beyond Hu’s stay.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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Times staff writer David Pierson contributed to this report.


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