Three of the four top U.S. congressional leaders plan to skip a state dinner tonight with Chinese President Hu Jintao, highlighting the contentious relationship between Congress and the major economic power.
House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t attend the black-tie event at the White House. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a critic of China’s human-rights policy, plans to go. The state dinner is the first for a Chinese leader in more than 13 years.
The leaders’ decision to pass on the dinner may add to distrust between China and the U.S., said Dan Mahaffee, an expert on China at the Washington-based Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
“It sends an unfortunate message that at a time of competition between the two countries, that American politicians are busy looking inward,” Mahaffee said.
Hu’s visit is focused on economic ties between the two countries, including more than $400 billion in annual trade, as well as differences over human rights, China’s enforcement of intellectual-property rights and what U.S. officials say is the artificially low value of the yuan.
Aides to all three leaders cited scheduling conflicts for their absences. Reid and Boehner plan to meet with Hu in the Capitol tomorrow.
Asked why he passed up the dinner, Boehner said Hu “is coming to the Hill” tomorrow and “we are going to meet with him in a bipartisan fashion and I look forward to the meeting.”
Members of Congress are frequent critics of China, accusing the country of currency manipulation, abusing trade laws, threatening U.S. national security and violating human rights.
Reid called Hu a “dictator” in a television interview yesterday with a Las Vegas station.
“He is a dictator,” said Reid. “He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have. Maybe I shouldn’t have said dictator, but they have a different type of government than we have, and that is an understatement.”
Mahaffee says statements like that are “red meat” for lawmakers, who he said are playing to the fears of the American public. A January survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 53 percent of Americans said it was important for the U.S. to get tougher with China on trade and economic issues.
One in five respondents said China posed the greatest threat of any country to the U.S., up from 11 percent in November 2009.
“Local pressure at the district translates up,” Mahaffee said.
David Lampton, director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said lawmakers likely take a tougher line publicly than in private negotiations with top Chinese officials.
“They are often hostile in their comments publicly but extremely polite and solicitous when they are meeting Chinese privately,” Lampton said.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcomed Hu to the White House on the South Lawn of the executive mansion this morning.
Obama said in his remarks that the normalization of the U.S.-China relationship in 1979 brought increasing cooperation between the two nations.
The U.S. and China “have an enormous stake in each other’s success,” he said.
Hu said U.S. and China “share broad common interests.”
“Our cooperation as partners should be based on mutual respect,” he said. “China and the United States should respect each other’s development path.”
Later this afternoon, Chief Executive Officers Steve Ballmer of Microsoft Corp. and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. will be joined by General Electric Co. CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Jim McNerney of Boeing Co. and 10 other U.S. business leaders brought together by the Obama administration for a session with Hu aimed at expanding U.S. business interests in China, the world’s second-largest economy.
Also invited to the meeting were Westinghouse Electric Corp. CEO Aris Candris; former Sybase Inc. chief executive John Chen; Coca-Cola Co. chief executive Muhtar Kent; DuPont Co. CEO Ellen J. Kullman; Greg Page, CEO of Cargill Inc.; John Thornton, chairman of HSBC Holdings Plc’s North American division; David Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of Carlyle Group; Paul Otellini, Intel Corp. CEO; and Dow Chemical Co. CEO Andrew Liveris.
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