The Korea Herald


Undercurrent of tension on China state dinner menu

By 이우영

Published : Sept. 22, 2015 - 21:13

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WASHINGTON (AP) – When Chinese President Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan visit Washington later this week, President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, face the daunting task of trying to throw a warm and inviting dinner party for guests of honor accused of cyber-spying on the U.S., trampling human rights and engaging in assertive military tactics.

China, in turn, is miffed at the U.S. for what it says are groundless accusations about hacking, and wants the U.S. to butt out of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Not to mention the long-standing dispute over Taiwan.

Where will all this leave the few hundred guests selected to attend Friday night's lavish state dinner honoring the Chinese president?

Most likely still thrilled to be there, geopolitics be damned.

``Who wouldn't want to be in the room?'' says Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, who attended a 2014 state dinner for French President Francois Hollande. ``Die-hard cool people are excited to be there. No one is too cool to be in the room with the head of China and the head of the U.S.''

So, guests will be happy to be there. But also keenly aware of the dining-with-frenemies (an amalgam of friends and enemies) dynamic of an event where all sides will be working to be on their best behavior.

``It's a delicate dance, and it always has been,'' says Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.

She said the Chinese will be looking for a ``sign that you are not offending them'' while Americans will be looking for a sign that Obama is ``standing up for us.''

Under the best of diplomatic circumstances, the Chinese can be quick to perceive a slight.

During the last state visit for China, in 2011, the pianist Lang Lang's decision to play a song from the soundtrack of a 1956 film about the Korean War was widely seen by the Chinese as a snub directed at the American hosts, although the Chinese-born virtuoso himself said that was nonsense.

The escalating U.S.-China tensions of recent months will add extra layers of drama to what already would have been a sensitive event.

Will Obama and Xi be photographed toasting one another? Probably.

Will the promised blunt talk over policy differences during the leaders' daytime meetings carry over to their dinner-table conversation? Probably not.

And what about critics who don't make the dinner list? Will their protests register with those who do? It's happened before.

In 2006, a screaming protester interrupted the White House welcoming ceremony for China's Hu Jintao and called on President George W. Bush to stop Hu from persecuting the Falun Gong religious movement.  The tirade went on for several minutes before the woman was removed.