BEIJING, Jan. 17, 2011 -- When President Hu meets with President Obama this week, it will be the first time the leaders meet as representatives of the two largest economies in the world.
And you can be pretty sure that the visit will look very different from Hu's last visit in 2006, when he was given lunch instead of a state dinner.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the balance of power has shifted in this relationship in the last few years, with China's growth surging in the double digits as the U.S. grapples with high unemployment, sluggish growth and an expensive war in Afghanistan.
The question is whether in light of this shift, China is growing more strident in dealing with the U.S. and in pursuing its national interests.
On the surface, it would appear so.
Last year, the world saw a China that was increasingly assertive in dealing with tensions with Japan in the South China Sea.
It saw a China that refused to condemn North Korea after civilians were killed in an attack on Yeonpeong Island. And it saw a China that brazenly tested a stealth fighter jet as the U.S. defense secretary stood next to its president.
At a forum on US-China relations Friday, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai did not deny that China's "national strength" has increased enormously and that China is more confident with its growing role on the world stage.
But he reminded the audience that while China has grown, it is still way behind the U.S. and he was emphatic that "China will never seek hegemony," evidence perhaps that the Communist Party is continuing to practice Deng Xiaoping's policy of humility and harmony in China's dealings with the U.S.
Last week's J-20 test, and the fact that China's president appeared to know nothing about it, threw out another wild card, what Secretary Gates categorized as the possibility of "a disconnect" between China's civilian and military leadership. If true, this could have troubling implications for US-Sino relations.
As Fareed Zakaria writes in Time magazine, "The Chinese military… seems to consider the US as China's sworn enemy and to believe that a conflict between Beijing and Washington is inevitable."
Minister Cui appeared to reject speculation of a split, with oblique references to China's "holistic government." He spoke of the importance of abandoning "the outdated mindset" and of opening "a new chapter in win/win cooperation."
In the last two years, President Hu and President Obama have met no fewer than seven times and have developed a relationship that has been described by Ambassador Jon Huntsman as "friendly, cordial and confident."
Innumerable strategic dialogues have been set up to address issues binding the two countries, from trade to security, renewable energy, the economy and, more haltingly, military ties.
So what can we expect to see out of Hu's visit? Of course the main bones of contention will inevitably arise. Weapon sales to Taiwan remain by far and away the most troubling issue to China.
On the subject of North Korea, China will continue to insist that a return to six-party talks is the only way to deal with this situation and will strongly resist involving the UN Security Council in any way.
On currency, China will complain about the U.S.'s policy of quantitative easing and argue that the yuan should be allowed to appreciate at its own pace. It will tout the projected $380 billion in trade between China and the U.S. this year.
Certainly many other issues will be raised too -- Iran's nuclear program and climate cooperation to name just a couple.
But from the Chinese perspective, these state visits are less about scoring policy victories than they are about reaffirming the importance of the relationship and of cooperation between both sides.
Seen in this light, perhaps we should frame our expectations of Hu's visit next week slightly differently.