In the world of diplomacy, form is often way more important than substance. Consider Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington this Thursday.
Last September, Hurricane Katrina postponed what was to have been Hu's first D.C. trip since taking the helm as president in 2003. Remarkably, Beijing engaged in nearly eight months of diplomatic kung fu over the level of pomp and circumstance.
The Chinese demanded Hu's White House call be granted diplomacy's top-drawer "State visit" to connote China's rising status. That would've meant a 21-gun salute, Oval Office meeting and star-studded, black-tie state dinner - all memorialized for the folks back home with photo-ops.
The Bushies, by contrast, pushed for a substantive, five-hour, "roll up yer shirt-sleeves" meeting at the president's Crawford ranch, allowing the two leaders to dig in to the increasing number of barn-burner issues that divide the world's most powerful and most populous nations.
Katrina allowed Beijing to reopen the debate. In the end, though, Washington - worried about troubles in the bilateral relationship - balked.
Instead, Hu gets the "modified official visit": a South Lawn fusillade, Blair House stay-over, a one-hour Oval Office meeting, and a White House lunch - but not the highly coveted state dinner.
Both capitals would have been better served if the Chinese had agreed to the Texas meeting. Then President Bush and Hu could have had a "real" conversation on tough bilateral issues - and boy, oh, boy, there's no shortage of them.
Trade: This may be the thorniest issue now: U.S. grievances range from a huge trade deficit to massive copyright violations to blatant currency manipulation.
Beijing tried to ease tension in advance of the trip, sending 200 high-rolling business execs on a $16 billion shopping spree - they signed more than 100 contracts in 13 states. But that won't help ease the concerns of the U.S. private sector - or Congress - in the long run.
Last year, the U.S. trade deficit with China (now the world's fourth-largest economy) was a record $200 billion. And American businesses can point to plenty of reasons why that wasn't simply free markets at work.
For starters, Beijing's laws contain multiple limits on U.S. firms' access to the Chinese market. Critics also say Beijing has undervalued its currency, the yuan, by as much as 40 percent, making Chinese goods here cheap - and American products there expensive.
Trade analysts also say Chinese "piracy" (i.e., illegal reproduction) of U.S. intellectual property - movies, music, medicine, software - costs Americans big time: $3 billion in lost business income annually, $1 billion in unrecoverable tax revenue and 100,000 fewer U.S. jobs.
Security: Bush and Hu really need to talk here.
* China remains unwilling to haul Iran before the U.N. Security Council for punitive economic sanctions over its nuclear (weapons) program. No surprise: China is investing $100 billion in Iran's oil/gas industry.
* Critics also grumble that China's been little use on North Korea's nukes - hosting arms talks but doing little (if any) arm-twisting of the petulant Pyongyang. China, which provides North Korea with vital energy and economic aid, has more influence on the rogue regime than anyone else.
* Beijing's military buildup is causing mass indigestion at the Pentagon - which sees China's military as a credible threat to U.S. interests, friends (e.g., Taiwan) and allies (e.g., Japan) in Asia. Beijing now sports the world's third-largest defense budget (after the United States and Russia); this year it announced a 15 percent bump up in defense spending, continuing a decade-plus of yearly double-digit hikes.
Human rights: The rights of 1.3 billion Chinese matter to many Americans - whether it's Hollywood types concerned about Tibet or Christian activists upset about religious repression. While the Chinese people are, arguably, freer economically than they've ever been, political and social freedoms are another story.
Watchdog groups say China's human-rights record has grown worse since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. For example, to keep the lid on bubbling political curiosity, Beijing polices the Internet, censoring search engines and putting 300,000 "cybercops" on the Web beat.
China, unfortunately, seems more worried about Hu's strength at home - which "pomp and circumstance" can bolster - than in addressing the divisive issues that increasingly stress what's arguably the world's most important bilateral relationship.
Let's hope the two leaders still manage a serious sitdown. If
Hu's maiden U.S. visit comes to little more than White House "happy
snaps" and political tourism, already-fragile Sino-U.S. relations
will only deteriorate further.
Peter Brookes Heritage Foundation senior fellow, is the author of: "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in the New York Post