DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping received a warm welcome in the U.S. heartland on Wednesday, moving from Washington and talks on contentious international issues to Iowa, where the Chinese vice president was hailed as an old friend and a boost for billions of dollars in agricultural trade.
Before leaving Washington, Xi offered deeper cooperation with the United States on trade and security, citing Iran and North Korea, but called on Washington to heed Beijing's demands on contentious "core interests" such as Tibet. Xi is almost sure to become China's next president in just over a year.
Xi joined Iowa Governor Terry Branstad for a state dinner attended by several hundred business and government leaders, and was feted with a meal including Iowa-raised pork tenderloin, Angus beef and a soybean and corn salad.
Iowa is America's largest producer of corn, soybeans and pork, and China's appetite for all three is growing rapidly. Branstad invited Xi to Iowa to tout the state's agricultural riches and reconnect Xi with Iowans he had met during an agricultural trade trip in the 1980s.
Xi laid out his views on ties with the United States in the keynote speech of his visit to Washington before heading to Iowa.
His message was dominated by reassuring vows of more balanced economic ties and more international cooperation. But he also stressed Beijing's impatience with U.S. policies on Taiwan and Tibet - issues on which many Chinese citizens expect their leaders to show they will stand up to foreign pressure.
"The world is currently undergoing profound changes, and China and the United States face shared challenges and shoulder shared responsibilities in international affairs," Xi said in a meeting in Washington with U.S. business executives, academics and policy-makers involved with China.
"We should further use bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to enhance coordination between China and the United States on hotspots, including developments on the Korean peninsula and the Iran nuclear issue," said Xi.
Xi will finish his U.S. trip with a visit Thursday to Los Angeles after finishing his stop to Iowa.
Xi said on Wednesday he enjoyed his time in the Midwestern state, both in 1985 and this week. He described Americans as "honest, warm hearted, hard-working, friendly" and said there was a "tremendous reservoir of goodwill" between the Chinese and American people.
The value of American-Chinese agricultural trade ties was underscored when Chinese soybean buyers traveled to Des Moines to announce they would buy more than $4 billion in U.S. soybeans this year.
All told, the Chinese are expected to sign deals to buy a record amount of U.S. soybeans - some 12 million tons - this year, officials said. U.S. corn and pork sales are also on the rise to China.
"We are proud of our mutual beneficial trading partnerships with China and Iowa farmers are proud to harvest safe and reliable agricultural products for use by the people of China," said Branstad in a toast at the state dinner.
Branstad echoed comments of other U.S. and Chinese officials this week in saying that he hoped Xi's visit this week would foster and "even deeper friendship" that would benefit both countries.
Xi's visit to the United States this week has given him a chance to boost his international standing before his likely promotion to the head of China's ruling Communist Party later this year and president in early 2013.
His offer to work with Washington on solutions to conflicts with Iran and North Korea was welcomed as a possible balm to U.S. worries that Xi (pronounced like "shee") could take foreign policy in a more hawkish direction.
And the enthusiasm shown for U.S. farm goods, dear to the Asian economic giant as its rising middle class demands more and higher quality food, struck a promising chord with Americans. Several Chinese delegations shadowing Xi this week visited such U.S. agricultural giants as Archer Daniels Midland and Pioneer Hi-Bred International.
Still, friction remains. Xi this week stressed Beijing's impatience with U.S. policies on Taiwan and Tibet - where Beijing fears its claims could be undermined by Western pressure.
"History demonstrates that whenever each side handles relatively well the issues bearing on the other side's core and major interests, then Sino-U.S. relations are quite smooth and stable. But when it is the contrary, there are incessant troubles," he said.
Washington should "abide by the one-China policy and take concrete actions to oppose Taiwanese independence," he said.
"We also hope that the United States will truly implement its recognition that Tibet is part of China and its vow to oppose Tibetan independence, acting prudently in issues concerning Tibet," he added.
Tensions over Chinese control of Tibet have flared in past months when a succession of protests and self-immolations have exposed volatile discontent. Chinese officials have blamed those tensions on separatists or supporters of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader of the region.
In early 2010, the Obama administration's decision to move forward with proposed arms sales to Taiwan triggered vehement criticism from Beijing, including warnings of sanctions against U.S. companies involved in the sales.
Xi acknowledged the Obama administration's recent strategic "pivot" towards Asia, which will see a more mobile U.S. military presence, but warned Washington not to push too far.
"China welcomes the United States playing a constructive role in promoting the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, and at the same time we hope the U.S. side will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region, including China," said Xi.
For his part, President Barack Obama this week took aim at China's trade policies, saying he will not stand by when American's competitors "don't play by the rules.
Members of Congress pressed Xi on China's detentions of human rights activists as well. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's office said his staff delivered a letter on the case of Gao Zhisheng, a dissident and human rights lawyer imprisoned in China. The House speaker also expressed disappointment at China' veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.
Many U.S. lawmakers also complain that China's yuan currency is significantly undervalued, giving Chinese companies an unfair price advantage that helped lift the U.S. trade deficit with China to a record $295.5 billion in 2011.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner said on Wednesday that Beijing is letting its currency rise, but not quickly enough.
Xi, 58, is poised to become China's next leader after a decade in which it has grown to become the world's second largest economy while the United States has fought two wars and endured the deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
There were a few protesters outside the Iowa state capitol Wednesday, but Xi's arrival in Iowa was largely celebrated. An estimated 650 business and government leaders attended the dinner for Xi.
Calling Xi a "long-time friend," Branstad said his visit was a "historic opportunity."
"So many Iowans are pleased that a man we befriended those many years ago, has risen to such a position of prominence and respect in the great nation of China," said Branstad.
Xi spent Wednesday afternoon visiting the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, to reunite with townspeople he had met on a trade trip to the state in 1985 when Xi was a mid-level government official in the pig-farming region in Hebei.
On Thursday morning Xi will visit an Iowa soybean farm and help kick off a U.S.-China agricultural symposium hosted by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Des Moines.
Additional reporting by Paul Buckley, Rachelle Younglai and Susan Cornwell in Washington and Laura MacInnis in Milwaukee