Mr. Hu Goes to Washington

LONDON – President Hu Jintao will travel to the United States for his third official visit as China’s leader on January 19. It may be his last before he hands over power to his apparently designated successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, in 2012 – coincidentally the same year that President Barack Obama will be campaigning for a second term in the White House.

According to Forbes Magazine, Hu is the most powerful man in the world. Leaving aside the fact that power at the top is much more bureaucratically institutionalized in China than it was in Mao Zedong’s day (a good thing), certainly this visit is hugely important. Indeed, the US-China relationship will be the most significant bilateral engagement in shaping the course of the twenty-first century.

At the heart of globalization has been the emergence of fast-growing economies, most notably Brazil, India, and, above all, China. The US, of course, remains the world’s only superpower – militarily, economically, politically, and culturally. While the world’s democracies are not slow to criticize American leadership, they know that they rely on the US in tackling most serious global problems. Without America, nothing much gets done.

But China now has enough commercial clout, backed by more than $2 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, to play a decisive role in advancing or impeding global problem-solving, from the G-20 agenda to efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China is far too big to be taken for granted, and it wants to be shown the respect that it associates with being an ancient civilization that has contributed so much to human progress.