WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Few diplomatic rituals are more predictable than U.S. presidents prodding Chinese leaders over China's human rights record.
So when President Barack Obama hosts Chinese President Hu Jintao next week, the only real suspense will be over how forcefully and publicly he takes his Chinese counterpart to task before they turn to other priorities like currency, trade and North Korea.
The consensus among China watchers: Obama, stung by criticism that he was too deferential to Beijing when he visited in 2009, will be just a bit more assertive in addressing rights concerns with President Hu on U.S. soil.
But mindful of China's growing economic and diplomatic clout, he will stick to a quieter, more nuanced approach than recent predecessors like Bill Clinton, who bluntly told the country's rulers they were on the "wrong side of history."
China's response to any U.S. critique of its handling of civil liberties, religious freedom and Tibet is likely to be essentially the same as before: mind your own business.
The bottom line, though, is that neither side wants fresh discord over human rights to undermine their main goal of Hu's January 19 visit, which is to ease overall strains and set a better tone between the world's two biggest economic powers.
"The administration can't avoid paying lip service to human rights in China," said Dean Cheng, a China expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "But it won't go much beyond that. It's a case of agreeing to disagree."
Obama faces a balancing act -- talking tough enough to ease criticism of his muted approach while measuring his rhetoric to avoid antagonizing China's prickly communist leadership. He may also feel the need to tread cautiously because of Beijing's role as America's largest creditor.
HOW LOW CAN IT GO?
So where will human rights rank on the agenda for the talks? Much lower than international rights campaigners want.
The main focus is more likely to be on guns-and-butter disputes that have escalated tensions over the past year, like China's contentious exchange-rate policy, a ballooning trade gap, North Korea's nuclear program and its deadly attacks on South Korean targets, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Obama's aides deny he has soft-pedaled the China rights issue in his first two years and insist he is committed to pressing Beijing over its record -- it's just that he prefers to reserve his sharpest language for behind closed doors.
"If you speak directly to the president of China about your concerns about their record on human rights, I don't think that's soft-pedaling," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Still, rights groups are disappointed with the results of what they see as a mostly muted U.S. approach on China.
When jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, no one was present to accept it in Oslo. Dozens of his supporters were detained or blocked from leaving China.
Though Obama joined international condemnation, China routinely dismisses such complaints as meddling.
In a report issued this week, Human Rights Watch said continued use of torture, illegal detention, censorship and other abuses show China has failed to deliver on a government "action plan" that was supposed to protect human rights.
Notably, the Obama administration has avoided some gestures it thought likely to irk China.
The president held off on a White House meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, until February of last year, after the Beijing summit. Some advisers had argued against the delay, which was widely panned at home as appeasement of the Chinese.
Obama must now decide how vocal he will be during Hu's visit. The White House seems to have overcome Chinese objections to a joint news conference, which will give Obama a chance to address human rights and also open the Chinese president up to a rare give-and-take with reporters.
Obama's challenge will be to satisfy multiple audiences in the United States, where China's rights record can galvanize conservatives and liberals, religious groups and trade unions.
Many Republican critics demand that Obama show a strong hand with an increasingly assertive China, but they coexist with others who see the priority as protecting U.S. companies' access to the lucrative Chinese market.
Rights groups have lobbied in vain for Obama to roll back a China policy pursued in one form or another by both Democratic and Republican administrations to deal with human rights mostly on a separate track from economic and security issues.
China has long rejected U.S. criticism on human rights as a vestige of the Cold War. It has also honed counter-arguments: that the United States is hypocritical, China is committed to its own version of human rights, and fighting poverty and spurring development take precedence over political freedoms.
And with China wielding more power in the world, it seems increasingly reluctant to make concessions to Washington, especially after a financial crisis that many Chinese saw as discrediting free-wheeling U.S.-style capitalism.
Chinese rights campaigners are sounding more dispirited about chances for a serious push from Obama. He raised expectations after winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, an achievement many believe was mostly for lofty speechmaking.
"He's not exerting as much power as he should," said Teng Biao, a Chinese activist and law professor.