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James Reynolds | 10:19 UK time, Thursday, 2 April 2009

Being leader of the world's most populated country appears to guarantee you a good seat at dinner.

At the G20 summit dinner in London, China's President, Hu Jintao took the prime seat to the right of the host Gordon Brown. To Mr Hu's right was France's President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Hu Jintao

This could have been a reasonably glacial encounter. China has been angry with Mr Sarkozy for holding a meeting in December with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. But, just a few hours before the dinner in London, China and France released a joint communiqué in which France rejected Tibetan independence. This communiqué was apparently enough to ensure that Mr Hu and Mr Sarkozy were able to munch their shoulder of lamb in harmony.

The Chinese media has covered every moment of President Hu's trip to London. Of particular interest appears to be his meeting with Barack Obama - the first time the two men have ever met. We probably won't learn much from the few minutes they spent together. But in the long term, the relationship between China and the United States may come to define the course of this century.

China is now starting to exercise the political, economic and military power it's built up in recent years. Until recently China preferred to follow the advice given two decades ago by its late leader Deng Xiaoping - "hide our capacities, bide our time, and never be in the limelight."

But that policy is slowly changing. The governor of the Central Bank of China recently suggested replacing the dollar as the world's reserve currency. China has confronted the US Navy in the South China Sea. This country believes it should now have a greater say in organisations like the International Monetary Fund.

But China also needs help. This country has risen because it sells things to the rest of the world. But right now, the rest of the world can't afford to buy as much as it once did. So, factories in China have closed down. And 20m Chinese workers have lost their jobs. This country needs the world to start spending again.

As I write this entry, Hu Jintao has just gone into the conference hall in London (I noted that his limousine arrived fourth last - ahead of stragglers Lula, Sarkozy and Berlusconi).


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