Wednesday’s opulent, black-tie affair with President Barack Obama - the grandest of White House soirees - will mark the first such event in China’s honour in 13 years and it could help smooth tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

Feeling perhaps snubbed, slighted even, when he visited five years ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao is getting a do-over - plus the White House state dinner he sought back then but was denied.

Wednesday’s opulent, black-tie affair with President Barack Obama - the grandest of White House soirees - will mark the first such event in China’s honour in 13 years and it could help smooth tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

Some big questions remain - Who will cook? Will first lady Michelle Obama’s gown have an Oriental flair? Can the White House avoid mistakes like the ones that marred the reception when a protocol-conscious Mr. Hu arrived for an April 2006 summit?

For starters, Mr. Hu was unhappy that President George W. Bush opted for lunch over a state dinner.

Mr. Bush held few state dinners as president, preferring workman-like visits with foreign leaders over eating meals in a tuxedo. He also was sensitive to concerns in the U.S. about alleged human rights in China and was reluctant to be seen as going all out for Mr. Hu with a state dinner.

But then Mr. Hu’s pomp-filled welcome ceremony on the White House South Lawn, which included a military guard of honour and a 21-gun salute, was spoilt when a woman protesting China’s treatment of the banned Falun Gong religious movement began shouting during his remarks.

Mr. Bush apologized after he and Mr. Hu went into the Oval Office.

Further, a White House announcer called China the “Republic of China.” That’s the formal name for Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its territory.

Wednesday’s affair will return the hospitality that Mr. Obama was shown at a state dinner in Beijing on his November 2009 visit.

Personal relationship vital

A personal relationship between the two leaders is important for cooperation on several pressing issues in the time left on both of their terms in office, Asia watchers say. The visit is likely the last to Washington as president for Mr. Hu, a hydroelectric engineer who has ruled since 2002. He is expected to relinquish his leadership of the Communist Party next year and the presidency the year after. Mr. Obama is expected to seek re-election in 2012.

“The only way you can move policy is at the very top, and it requires a personal connection,” said Victor Cha, director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush White House. “Maybe this visit will be an opportunity to create some of that.”

Mr. Hu is getting plenty of face time with Mr. Obama, including a second dinner. The more private meal at the White House on Tuesday after Mr. Hu lands in Washington also will include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security adviser Tom Donilon and aides to Mr. Hu.

A one-on-one meeting

Wednesday’s schedule calls for the arrival ceremony, a one-on-one meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu, an expanded meeting that includes aides, a news conference and, finally, dinner.

It will be Mr. Obama’s third state dinner, following those for India in 2008 and Mexico last year.

For each dinner, Mrs. Obama - who is responsible for planning the events with the White House social secretary - recruited a guest chef to help prepare the meal. But there was no word on who might cook for Mr. Hu.

In fact, in keeping with its usual practice, the White House hasn’t released any details about the menu, the guest list, the decor, where dinner will be served or Mrs. Obama’s gown and doesn’t plan to until a few hours before Wednesday’s event is scheduled to begin.

U.S. and Chinese flags flap on Pennsylvania Avenue

On Monday, workers began preparing the South Lawn for the arrival ceremony, and U.S. and Chinese flags flapped in the breeze on Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol.

President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed President Jiang Zemin and his wife, Madame Wang Yeping, in October 1997, serving chilled lobster in tarragon sauce, pepper-crusted Oregon beef and whipped Yukon Gold potatoes to more than 230 guests seated elbow-to-elbow in the East Room. They ate on tableware from the Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations laid out on gold damask tablecloths.

Dinner tickets were highly sought and the lucky holders pointed to one of Ms. Clinton’s chief aims - access to China’s consumer market of more than one billion people. The guest list included CEOs from Xerox, PepsiCo, Walt Disney Co. and General Motors Corp.

The National Symphony Orchestra provided after-dinner entertainment in a tent on the South Lawn that included the American classics “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin and John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

White House officials suggested at the time that Jiang might be tempted to get up on stage. At a dinner the year before in the Philippines, he surprised his host by singing “Love Me Tender” and “Swanee River.”

Hu, an avid ballroom dancer

Could Mr. Hu succumb to similar temptation? He was known as an avid ballroom dancer in college.

The Clintons had anticipated a level of interest in the dinner that would exceed the ability of the White House to comfortably accommodate its guests. Planners offered to hold it outside in a tent, but Mr. Jiang’s representatives held out for indoors.

Mr. Jiang had been miffed years earlier when Ms. Clinton refused him an official visit and insisted on meeting at New York’s Lincoln Centre instead.

“This time, China is getting everything that it wants in terms of the symbols of a visit,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies who focuses on China.


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