Obama aiming to conduct dinnertime diplomacy with Chinese president

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jingping will try to work out some of their differences Friday night while they dine on fine wine and cuisine at a posh state dinner at the White House. It could be a tense meal.

U.S. president is hosting a state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Xi Jingping

President Barack Obama toasts with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a lunch in November when the U.S. president visited China. On Friday, Obama will take his turn hosting Xi and is having a state dinner at the White House in honour of his visit to Washington. (Greg Baker/Associated Press)

President Barack Obama is throwing a posh dinner party at the White House tonight and the guest of honour leads a country the U.S. has a number of other beefs with, including cybertheft. It could could make for some interesting, and perhaps awkward conversation.

Beef isn't on the menu for the elaborate state dinner being held in honour of visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping — poached Maine lobster and grilled Colorado lamb get that honour — but Obama's gripes will also be served up during the visit, according to White House officials.

"We're doing this because this is the smart, effective way of getting things done with one of the most consequential countries for U.S. diplomacy and for promoting American national interests," Dan Kritenbrink, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, told CBC News.

"This is just a tremendous strategic opportunity that we plan to take full advantage of," he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama have met several times before this week's visit, including in June 2013, in California. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Xi arrived in the U.S. capital on Thursday, soon after Pope Francis departed, and he and Obama had a private, informal dinner together. Today's events include more talks between the two leaders, a lunch for Xi at the State Department and the state dinner, to which approximately 200 guests are invited.

State dinners are typically held for friendly visiting heads of state, from countries that are close allies with the United States. China and the U.S., in contrast, have a strained relationship with a number of irritants holding it back. Despite that, it was a very deliberate decision to put a state dinner on Xi's itinerary.

Cybertheft a major U.S. concern

"We really think that the state dinner is a key part of the state visit, it represents good diplomacy," said Kritenbrink.

The guest list, which hasn't been released publicly yet but will include members of the American business community and other stakeholders, was also put together deliberately, he noted.
White House pastry chef Susie Morrison shows reporters a sample dessert plate of what will be served at Friday's state dinner. Everything on the plate is edible, including the imitation rocks, pavilion and bridge, all made of chocolate. She calls the design a 'stroll through the garden.' (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

"It's an opportunity to make sure that the Chinese leadership hears from a wide cross-section of Americans," Kritenbrink said of the attendees.

The White House openly acknowledges there are areas of "friction" between the Chinese and American governments, and officials say that's why state visits like these are so important — so the leaders can engage with each other and try to eliminate the tension.

For the U.S., those issues include human rights, maritime security issues in the South China Sea, and certain economic practices. But the biggest bone the U.S. has to pick with China right now is cybertheft and that's what Obama plans to spend a lot of time on with Xi over the course of his visit.

The U.S. says it has concerns about Chinese state-sponsored cybertheft of American companies' intellectual property and trade secrets, for the benefit of Chinese companies. The Chinese government denies being involved in cybertheft in any way.

The U.S. is so serious about the issue it has mused about imposing sanctions on China. The Department of Justice also recently indicted five Chinese military officials in connection with suspicious cyber activities.

 How's that for some pleasant dinnertime conversation?

"We're not going to paper over differences, we're going to be perfectly clear and candid about what those differences are," said Kritenbrink. The goal, he added, is to narrow those differences during Xi's visit.

Dinnertime diplomacy

Obama will work on that at the meetings and at the dinner while the leaders and guests dine from a menu that we're told highlights "American cuisine with nuances of Chinese flavours" — with ingredients from the White House garden. After-dinner music will be provided by R&B artist Ne-Yo, whose father is part-Chinese.

A lot of thought and preparation goes into state dinners, as White House staff told journalists Thursday when they provided a preview of the food and decor. Roses were chosen for the flower arrangements, for example, to represent "the richness of each individual culture and the perennial friendship and everlasting respect between our two countries."
Roses were chosen for the table centrepieces to represent the 'perennial friendship' between China and the U.S. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The dessert course is an elaborate display that White House pastry chef Susie Morrison calls "a stroll through the garden," partly a nod to the prevalence of beautiful gardens in China, she said. Everything on the plate is edible. It includes a selection of mini pastries, roses and white lotus flowers to symbolize good fortune that are made out of pulled sugar and a handmade chocolate pavilion – and a bridge, perhaps a metaphor for what Obama and Xi are trying to build.

Both sides have tried to highlight the areas where the U.S. and China are getting along in advance of the visit and they say they want to strengthen areas of co-operation. Those issues include things like global health challenges, the Iran nuclear deal and a big climate change agreement they reached last year.

It won't be lost on anyone at the dinner, however, that this will be one of the more awkward meals ever served in the East Room.

Throwing a state dinner in honour of Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, has been criticized by some Republican presidential candidates. Marco Rubio said the two leaders should just be having working sessions. Donald Trump said he would serve Xi a Big Mac and just get down to work and Carly Fiorina also said this week that a lavish dinner that honours Xi should be skipped.

The White House rejects those criticisms, saying it's important for the White House to reciprocate the dinner that was held for Obama when he visited Xi in China last fall. It's all part of diplomacy, said  Kritenbrink.

"This represents good, smart, American diplomacy. Particularly with a country like China, methodical engagement at the leader level is how you get business done," he said. "This is a key way of engaging China, about shaping China's choices and about ensuring that there is clear communication at the highest levels."


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