Hu and Bush: Let's Do Lunch

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Chinese President Hu Jintao speaks during the arrival ceremony at the White House on Thursday

Back during the Cold War, when the leaders of the world's major powers got together, there was anticipation for weeks. In Vienna in 1961, the Cold War took a turn for the worse as Kennedy and Khrushchev squared off over Berlin, and in Glassboro, N.J., in 1967 it took a turn for the better as Lyndon Johnson and the Soviet leader met days after the Six-Day War and the defection of Joseph Stalin's daughter to the U.S caused outrage in Moscow. In Iceland in 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan met and almost banned nuclear weapons. When Chinese President Hu Jintao came to the White House on Thursday, the visit lasted five hours including lunch.

There was no great tension and no great accomplishment. There was no swift action on the trade imbalance between the two countries, which tops $200 billion annually. China didn't offer to free up its currency to a level where it could rise against the dollar — and, presumably, make Chinese goods more expensive, American goods cheaper and the U.S. trade deficit lower. All China did was stick by a promise laid out last year to move away from an economy that is export-driven and not consumer-driven and is growing at a torrid 10% annually. The two countries trade more than ever but their systems remain dramatically out of whack. For instance, in China the savings rate is 53%; the U.S. rate is often negative, meaning Americans spend more than they earn.

So without any real progress on these issues, Hu's first visit to the White House was marked more by visuals than anything else. There was the well-choreographed arrival on the South Lawn, which was upset by a "journalist" for a newspaper run by the Falun Gong, who protested China's crackdown on the religious sect. "Of course we knew she was with a Falun Gong paper," said a senior Administration official trying to explain the snafu. "But if we'd kept her out, the world would have screamed that we were guilty of censorship." So her cries came to dominate the news cycle. If that weren't awkward enough, when Bush and Hu stood on the south lawn, the loudspeaker mistakenly referred to China as the Republic of China, the formal name of Taiwan, which China considers a mere province. Later in the Oval Office, Bush apologized to Hu for the Falun Gong heckler.

In a rare move at events like these, Bush and Hu decided to sit next to each other at lunch, instead of a few seats apart, so they could continue working. Over wild-caught Alaskan halibut with mushroom essence they continued their discussions on everything from trade and human rights to North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions. No big progress on any of those fronts. Still, the two pledged closer cooperation and the atmospherics were cordial, if not friendly. The two men had met five times previously and have a good working relationship, and Administration officials portrayed the improvement in relations between the two nations as slow and steady.

"Some people today want to see a quick fix to the trade imbalance. And if there was one, believe us, we would have tried to get that by now with the Chinese. But in the new global economy, there is no quick fix. That's not the way this is going to work." said Dennis Wilder, the point person on East Asia issues for the National Security Council. He went on to note that China had embarked on a new five-year plan that would move them toward a more consumer-driven economy, which should in turn lead to a narrowing of the U.S.-Chinese trade deficit.

Whatever did get accomplished got wrapped up quickly. Hu left right after lunch and the entertainment provided by a bluegrass band. As throngs of protesters decried China's human rights record, Hu's motorcade sped off. For his part, President Bush had plenty of time in the afternoon to hand out the Presidential Environmental Youth Awards.