Amid the usual hustle and bustle of Times Square, visitors to New York should expect to see an unusual figure this week: Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, stretched to many times his 2.29 metres, on the giant screen.
Yao, Jackie Chan and astronaut Yang Liwei feature in an ad campaign commissioned by Beijing to boost its soft power, according to Chinese media. They are the advance party for President Hu Jintao, who arrives in the US for a state visit today following a year of unusually fraught relations. Trade, territorial and human rights issues have caused much tension; rows over Google and arms sales to Taiwan have added to the problems. "When there is a summit, both sides do a lot of public relations work. I think China will do more [this time]," said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University, Beijing. "Our leaders need it because the diplomatic performance last year was quite bad. They want to reassure the American public."
Last year was – according to David Shambaugh, a veteran watcher of bilateral relations – the most strained for a decade. That was all the more striking because some thought President Barack Obama's visit to Beijing in 2009 was unexpectedly productive. The joint statement they produced was "a visionary road map for building the relationship on bilateral, regional, and global levels … Unfortunately, much of [it] was stillborn", Shambaugh wrote this week. The two sides have been frank in acknowledging their differences.
"When the relationship is strained we need to bear in mind the larger picture and not allow any individual issue to disrupt our overall co-operation," vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai said on Friday.
"Both sides feel strongly it's time to stabilize relations and reduce tensions and deal with the situation on the peninsula," said Shi. "I think compared with last year's situation, it will be quite easy to achieve some sort of success."
While they are highly unlikely to agree on how to handle North Korea – Beijing wants a return to the six-party talks but Washington says Pyongyang must not be rewarded for bad behavior – they may find a way to imply progress.
On trade, Beijing has allowed its currency, the renminbi, to appreciate over the last year – albeit not at anything like the rate many in the US want – and it is expected to rise further this year.
While there is room for co-operation as well as competition on trade and nonproliferation efforts, human rights and territorial disagreements are largely intractable, suggested Professor Shen Dingli, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University.
This year, it is sending out friendlier signals – Shen points out it did not accept its ally Iran's invitation to visit its nuclear facilities.