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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 23:46 GMT 00:46 UK
Hu visit sharpens US dilemma
The BBC's Justin Webb
By Justin Webb
BBC News, Washington

China's President Hu Jintao is visiting the US in what many Americans are seeing as a vitally important trip - one which will decide whether the protectionist instincts of some US politicians are given a boost or put on the back burner.

Hu Jintao and his wife arrive in the US on April 18
The flags are out to welcome Hu on his US visit
US manufacturers say China depresses the value of its currency to make Chinese goods cheaper for US consumers and American products more expensive in China.

Some politicians want America to retaliate.

The fact is that neither the US establishment nor ordinary Americans know what to make of China.

Is this huge and burgeoning nation a threat or an opportunity?

And if China does represent a threat - if Chinese trade practices are currently unfair - what is the best way of altering the situation?

Should there be engagement or disassociation?

Chinese for children

I watched recently as a new generation of Americans prepared for the future.

Chinese textile factory
The US had a $202bn trade deficit with China in 2005
The US is China's second-largest trade partner
China is the fourth-largest US market

These Americans have no doubt in their minds that China represents exciting new possibilities.

They were seven-year-olds at Potomac elementary school in the suburbs of Washington DC, where one of the first things they learn is how to count from one to ten in Chinese.

The school has been teaching Chinese for some time, but the headmistress Linda Goldberg says that recently the pace has picked up.

And much of the impetus, she says, comes from parents who want to position their kids for a Chinese future - a future where America and China are trading partners, a future where the two nations speak each others' languages, literally and metaphorically.

'Get tough'

Back in the centre of Washington, though - where the politicians must map out the path to the great Chinese future - things are not sounding so sunny.

Here they can count from one to ten in English, and that ability gives them a gloomy sense that they are being fleeced - that China's currency is being kept deliberately weak in order to keep its exports cheap, damaging US firms and distorting fair trade.

Sen Charles Grassley (right) with President George W Bush
Sen Grassley wants action from the president
Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, says agricultural manufacturers in his state are suffering and Mr Bush needs to act.

For too long, Senator Grassley told me, there has been a "namby-pamby" attitude to getting tough with the Chinese - the time has come for real tough talk and President Bush should offer some of that talk in Washington this week.

The senator says people in his state sometimes think there is a greater interest in assisting the Chinese economy than in helping out at home.

The Bush administration has so far fought off the senators' demands for punitive action against the Chinese - but this is a weakened White House and it is an election year.

The president's commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, speaks very plainly about the risks if China does not change course.

On a recent visit to China he told his hosts that there were protectionist elements in Congress and the Chinese needed to do more to stop them gaining ground.

What he did not say, of course, is that his boss is so politically weak that he might anyway be brushed out of the way by senators on a protectionist roll.

Meanwhile, back at Potomac elementary, the kids sing Chinese songs with gusto, tiny unwitting advocates of free trade in a nation which is having doubts.

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