WASHINGTON // Befitting a summit that some say could shape the future of the globe's most important bilateral relationship, the US president, Barack Obama, welcomed the Chinese president, Hu Jintao to the White House on Tuesday with a display of pomp and circumstance reserved for only the most honoured guests.
But in perhaps a sign of the frank discussions expected to take place behind closed doors during the four days of talks, Mr Obama raised the contentious issue of China's human rights record in a way that was both subtle yet impossible to miss during the ceremony on the South Lawn of the executive mansion.
"History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are successful and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," Mr Obama said.
Most of Mr Obama's brief remarks, however, stressed broad areas of agreement between the two countries and struck a decidedly friendly tone matching what observers have noted has been an easing of tensions in the run-up to the summit.
"The United States welcomes China's rise as a strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations," Mr Obama said.
"Indeed, China's success has brought with it economic benefits for our people as well as yours, and our co-operation on a range of issues has helped advance stability in the Asia Pacific [region] and in the world."
He added: "With this visit, we can lay the foundation for the next 30 years. We have an enormous stake in each other's success."
Mr Hu, on his first state visit to the United States, echoed Mr Obama's mostly harmonious sentiments, but he pointedly reminded US policymakers that China has its own priorities and clearly indicated that Beijing is not inclined to bow to US pressure on its human rights record.
"We live in an increasingly diverse and colourful world. China and the United States should respect each other's choice of development path and each other's core interests," said Mr Hu, who was greeted as he drove up to the White House by hundreds of pro-Tibet protesters chanting "Stop the killing. Free Tibet,"
Mr Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, greeted Mr Hu together. A colour guard stood at attention on the South Lawn as the two leaders met before cabinet members, politicians and US and foreign diplomats. Mr Hu was also granted a 21-gun salute, one of America's highest honours, and a full navy brass band.
The talks are expected to address a number of sticking points between the two heads of state, including the valuation of China's yuan, trade imbalances, North Korea and human rights in China.
While human rights may prove a point of contention for the two powers, minutes after the ceremony, the administration announced export deals to China worth US$45 billion (Dh165bn), highlighting the summit's focus on economic ties amid continued US trade deficits with the Asian nation. The package includes a $19bn purchase of 200 Boeing aircraft, all previously announced orders.
These deals may not be enough to assuage some in the US who fear Chinese economic dominance.
Early on Wednesday a group of 84 US politicians issued a letter to Mr Obama urging him to remind China of its duties under current trade regulations. The letter, which received support from both Republicans and Democrats, stated that the US "can no longer afford to tolerate China's disregard for binding commitments they agreed to as a part of their accession to the World Trade Organisation".
Mr Hu's visit is also dominating US talk shows and newspaper front pages, attesting to the significance attached to the relationship.
Speaking on the Today show, an American morning news and talk programme, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said: "This relationship is going to, in many ways, determine the peace and stability and prosperity of the 21st century."
In a relationship that Washington views as "co-operative, but competitive" there is little room for error.
Mr Hu's last visit to Washington in 2006 was marred with diplomatic missteps by George W Bush, then US president, perhaps the most glaring of which was an official introduction of Mr Hu that confused the official name of China with that of Taiwan, which the Chinese view as a rogue province.
Mr Hu's visit was accompanied by a series of Chinese public relations efforts including one that saw New York's Times Square light up with Chinese promotional videos scheduled to play 300 times daily for the next month.
Relations between the two countries have fluctuated since their normalisation in 1979, as China asserted itself more openly in the decades that followed. The past two years, have seen the relation suffer strains in part as a result of the global financial crisis.
Mr Hu is expected to meet with top US politician John Boehner on Thursday. Mr Boehner declined an invitation to Wednesday's state dinner at the White House.
The dinner is the highest honour the White House can bestow upon a visiting head of state. A state dinner was denied Mr Hu by Mr Bush in 2006, sparking a diplomatic row between the countries.
The details of yesterday's dinner were kept strictly under wraps, though it was revealed that Jackie Chan, the actor, would be in attendance.
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg