WASHINGTON — It’s never good when tension is on the dinner menu.
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 cyberspying 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 Old Faithful of disputes, 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 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.
Will invited guests mix it up over U.S.-China policy disputes even if the host and guest of honor don’t? We may never know.
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, as Bush whispered to Hu: “You’re OK.” Adding to the tension, a White House announcer at the same ceremony made the cringe-worthy gaffe of referring to China as the “Republic of China,” the formal name of Taiwan.
When it comes time for Friday’s dinner toasts, Obama will be in the awkward position of raising a glass in grand fashion with the leader of a country he’s threatening to punish for industrial espionage and faulting for its crackdown on activists.
That’s causing palpitations among the president’s critics, especially the Republicans hoping to succeed him in the White House.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says the visit should have been bumped down to a working sessions sans pomp and pageantry. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump says he would’ve offered Xi a Big Mac – double-sized, at least. Before he dropped out, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Obama should have canceled the visit outright.
White House officials, for their part, defend the dinner as an important opportunity to improve relations between two world powers. They stress that for all their many differences, China and the U.S. have successfully worked together on plenty of other matters, including climate change, North Korea’s nuclear threat and the Iran-nuclear deal.
Obama’s challenge, says McBride, will be to “convey toughness with graciousness.”
As for the White House party planners, their focus remains largely the same regardless of who’s the guest of honor: sticking to the established state-dinner framework and executing it with perfection.
“There are always four sets of eyes that look at all the logistics,” says Capricia Marshall, a former Obama protocol chief and social secretary in the Clinton administration.
Marshall expressed confidence the Obama team would ensure “there are no protocol slip-ups.” She added, though, that when “oopsidoodles” do occur, “you try to keep those behind the curtain.”
Former Obama social secretary Desiree Rogers said that with everyone focused on showing Xi a good time, “It’s pretty easy to get somebody to smile if you’re doing everything that is their favorite.”
And even if not, guests will come away knowing they were part of something historic.
“That’s what’s fun about being at the state dinner,” says Coles, “you want to be in the room when there is something happening.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.