BEIJING (Reuters) - An invitation to dinner at the White House could help coax Chinese President Hu Jintao to stomach tougher pressure on ally North Korea when he visits Washington next month.
Hu's state visit to the United States, while swaddled in ceremony, will throw into glaring focus the two big powers' often diverging agendas on economic imbalances, security disputes and, especially after last week's attack on South Korea, of North Korea.
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to use the summit to urge Hu to increase pressure on his ally Pyongyang, which has triggered regional alarm by shelling a South Korean island and claiming fast progress in uranium enrichment, which would give it a second pathway to making nuclear weapons.
U.S. complaints that China keeps its yuan currency too cheap, giving it an unfair trade advantage, will almost certainly feature, said several scholars who study bilateral relations.
Hu will arrive at the White House, however, carting his own heavy political baggage. For few leaders does the importance of a White House summit come so bound with its televised stagecraft.
Hu bears the expectations of a country that sees itself as ascending while America struggles with deficits, deserving a bigger hearing over Taiwan, Tibet and other areas of tension, as well as a state dinner at the White House.
"They want the symbolic treatment that they see as deserving of a Chinese leader. They want to get as much as they can in terms of symbolism," said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
When Hu visited in 2006, then President George W. Bush treated him to a lunch, less prestigious than a dinner. Beijing called that trip a "state visit". Washington did not.
"Hu will want a dinner and not a lunch," said Haenle.
"The U.S. side will be looking for deliverables to show that the relationship is working," said Haenle, who formerly worked on China policy in the White House's National Security Council.
"Of course, now they'll want to do that with North Korea first and foremost."
The visit will help Hu burnish his statesman aura as he prepares to retire from front-line leadership from late-2012.
"It now is all about his legacy. I can't imagine that President Hu wants his legacy to be a broken relationship with America. So, each leader is heavily invested in having a successful trip," David Lampton, professor of China studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C., wrote in emailed answers to questions.
"One of the difficulties in getting success, however, is that each side measures success in somewhat different terms."
Neither side has announced precise dates or details for Hu's visit. An Obama administration official told Reuters that Hu will get a state dinner.
Hu's focus on his legacy may encourage him to mute some tensions but also make him more allergic to unrehearsed give-and-take.
Since President Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972, which broke decades of estrangement between the two countries, their summits have been carefully plotted rituals.
Hu's particular aversion to informal encounters was shown in 2006 when, according U.S. officials at the time, he declined Bush's offer for a meeting at his ranch home in Texas, something many other foreign leaders, keen for a bonding ride in the U.S. President's pick-up truck, yearned for.
Hu preferred the decorum of the White House.
"For the Chinese, symbolic events and the right pictures are central, while Americans care more about addressing issues," said Lampton, the professor.
Obama may, however, aim for something like what happened at the White House in April 2006.
Bush rearranged the chairs for Hu's lunch so the two sat next to each other, instead of several seats apart as protocol recommends, and Bush talked at length about North Korea and its nuclear weapons programme, said Haenle.
Soon after, Hu sent an envoy to Pyongyang to pass on Bush's demands on curbing nuclear activities and offers for talks.
Beijing did not shift its basic stance on North Korea, but it became a bit more cooperative with Washington.
"Something similar could happen with Obama, and frankly North Korea should feel a little nervous," said Haenle.
Beijing shows every sign of sticking by Pyongyang, which it sees as a buffer against the U.S. and its allies. Obama may coax a bit more flexibility from Hu, but not a turn-around.
"I think the Chinese have decided the situation is more precarious than it's ever been," Haenle said of North Korea.
Above all, Hu wants no surprises.
Chinese officials preparing for his visit fear protests and unanticipated official U.S. comments over China's human rights record, especially about the jailed Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, said a Beijing-based researcher who has spoken to Chinese officials about the trip. The researcher spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the need to protect those sources.
Such drama could spoil images meant to tell the audience back home that their Communist Party-run government is honoured at the heart of the world's sole superpower.
Beijing also wants to avoid the gaffes that marred Hu's visit to the White House in 2006, when China's national anthem was announced as that of the "Republic of China", or Taiwan, the island that Beijing calls an illegitimate breakaway.
Hu also stood flustered on the White House lawn while a follower of Falun Gong, a spiritual sect banned in China, shouted accusations at him for three minutes from the press area.
"They're completely paranoid about things going wrong," said the researcher, speaking of China's diplomats.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in WASHINGTON D.C.; Editing by Ken Wills and Jonathan Thatcher)