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Obama holding first China state dinner in 13 years

By Darlene Superville

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 18 2011 4:40 p.m. MST

Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, and Vice President Joe Biden stand for the national anthems of both countries during an arrival ceremony on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Feeling 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 honor in 13 years and could help smooth tensions between the world's two largest economies.

Some big questions remain: Who will cook? Who is coming to dinner? Can the White House avoid mistakes like those that marred the reception when a protocol-conscious Hu arrived for an April 2006 summit?

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

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

But then Hu's pomp-filled welcome on the South Lawn was spoiled when a woman protesting China's treatment of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement began shouting during his remarks. Bush apologized after he and Hu went into the Oval Office.

Compounding the insult, a White House announcer called China the "Republic of China." That's the formal name for Taiwan, the democratic island that autocratic China claims as its territory.

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

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 probably the last to Washington as president for 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.

"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 Bush's National Security Council and currently a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Maybe this visit will be an opportunity to create some of that."

Hu is getting plenty of face time with Obama, including a second dinner Tuesday night after he arrives in Washington. The more intimate meal, closed to media coverage, also will include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security adviser Tom Donilon and Hu aides.

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

It will be Obama's third state dinner. He held dinners for India in 2009 and Mexico last year.

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

In keeping with its usual practice, the White House held tight to details about the menu, the decor, where dinner will be served and what Mrs. Obama will wear until hours before the event begins.

But some tidbits began trickling out Tuesday.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has declined to attend, according to his spokesman and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Members of the congressional leadership from both parties were invited, Gibbs said.

Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck noted Hu's plans to visit Congress the next day. His boss didn't attend the India and Mexico dinners either.

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