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Getting to know Xi: White House prepares to meet China's new man

President Obama and Xi Jinping, China's likely next president, meet today at the White House. Many are hoping for a good rapport that will bolster a strained US-China relationship.

By Staff Writer / February 14, 2012

Demonstrators line up to welcome the arrival of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in Washington on Tuesday.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Beijing

Who is Hu? That is a question US officials have been asking themselves for nearly a decade about China’s wooden and uncommunicative leader Hu Jintao. And they still don’t have an answer.

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  Today, when President Obama meets Xi Jinping, the man slated to take over Mr. Hu’s job next autumn, he will be hoping it will be a little easier to strike up a personal rapport  with the man expected to run China for the next 10 years.

 As the US and China clash over a wide range of political and economic issues, “their two leaders need to feel they have a good read on each other at a personal and political level,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

 Nobody expects any breakthroughs on the questions that divide Washington and Beijing during Vice President Xi’s visit. Instead, this is a mood-setting trip, giving Mr. Obama a chance to take the measure of China’s next leader and offering Mr. Xi an opportunity to get a better feel for America.

The trip is also important to Xi for his own political reasons. He is generally expected to become the head of the ruling Communist party next autumn, and to take over the Chinese presidency early next year.

“His capacity to deal with the US in a way that induces respect and to show that he can handle the US effectively…is extremely important” to his peers in Beijing, says Professor Lieberthal.

Officials and analysts on both sides of the Pacific point to a fundamental flaw in the most important bilateral relationship in the world: Neither side trusts the other.

“The trust deficit sums up a very clear fact,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said here last week. “The level of mutual trust between China and the United States lags behind what is required for the further expansion of our bilateral relationship. Vice President Xi’s visit will present a very important opportunity to further enhance our mutual trust.”

The list of policy issues over which Beijing and Washington differ is long and varied. It includes how to handle Iran’s nuclear program, the value of the Chinese currency, the Renminbi, how to deal with the Syrian government, trade disputes, investment opportunities for US firms in China and the roles both sides want to play in the South China Sea.

“The relationship is not in good shape and there is a lot of competition in various spheres,” says David Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University.

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