SEATTLE: Chinese President Xi Jinping began a state visit to the United States on Tuesday with a stop in Seattle, to demonstrate to Washington how essential good relations with Beijing are to US industry.
While President Barack Obama has a long list of issues — from military relations to human rights to cyber-theft — waiting for the Chinese leader’s arrival in the US capital on Thursday, Xi was meeting with the heads of US giants like Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks.
Accompanied by a huge delegation of Chinese business officials, Xi and his wife received a red carpet greeting early Tuesday at Paine Field near Seattle.
He was scheduled to meet throughout the day with several US state governors who see trade and investment with China as crucial to their local economies.
In the evening — to an audience dominated by businessmen — he will make his only major speech while in the country.
With the Obama administration increasingly at odds with Beijing over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, cyber theft of US business secrets and alleged discriminatory business practices against US investors in China, Xi could have his best chance to clear some air while in Seattle.
But he also needs to demonstrate to the public back home that the United States takes his country seriously as an equal among global superpowers.
In an interview published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, Xi depicted China and the United States — the world’s two largest economies — leading shoulder-to-shoulder, with both common and competing interests.
“Together, China and the United States account for one-third of the world economy, one-fourth of the global population, and one-fifth of global trade,” he said.
“If two big countries like ours do not cooperate with each other, just imagine what will happen to the world.”
Washington though sees different priorities in the relationship. Obama has threatened sanctions on Chinese officials over concerted efforts by Chinese hackers to steal secrets and intellectual property from US businesses.
To highlight what Washington thinks about Beijing’s tough new national security laws, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Tuesday hosted US non-governmental groups likely to be hurt.
One US official said those groups are worried about their long-term presence in the country. Everything from universities to rights groups would be affected should the draft law go into force.
In addition, the US is seeking more information about an American businesswoman, Sandy Phan-Gillis, who has been held by Chinese security services for six months accused of being a spy, but whose case only became public on Tuesday.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was “disconcerting” that they have not been able to get answers to their questions.
‘Meeting is the message’
With little hope of settling major political differences in meetings with Obama, in Seattle, “the meeting is the message,” said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In lavishing attention on Seattle, Xi follows in the footsteps of three other Chinese presidents: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
“We know the value of international trade and we know the value of exports to China and how many thousands of good-paying jobs it supports here in the state of Washington,” Gary Locke, a former Washington governor and ex-US ambassador to China, told Agence France-Presse.
On Wednesday, Xi will hold a roundtable meeting of 30 top US and Chinese corporate chieftains, and will also make trips to Boeing and Microsoft, as well as a Seattle high school he visited years ago as a lower-level official.
While few doubt Xi’s power in China and his determination to elevate its status on the global stage, he nevertheless has to convince his hosts — and the politicians running in the 2016 presidential election — that he can work with them.
US businesses are worried about Beijing’s increased support for its own companies when they compete head-to-head with American investors.
And many are concerned that Beijing does not have a firm hand on the sudden downturn of its economy, which has fueled turmoil in global financial markets.
In the Wall Street Journal interview, Xi stressed the temporary nature of China’s downturn, likening it to a large ship sailing in stormy seas, and insisted the country was moving forward quickly with needed, market-oriented reforms.
“We give equal and fair treatment to all market players, including foreign-invested companies in China,” he also insisted.
Xi also argued that cybersecurity is an equal concern for Chinese and American companies, and that Beijing does not support cybertheft.
“The Chinese government does not engage in theft of commercial secrets in any form, nor does it encourage or support Chinese companies to engage in such practices in any way,” he said.