WASHINGTON (Reuters) - From the power centers of Washington to a soybean farm in Iowa and on to sunny Southern California, China’s president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, will sample diverse slices of America during a major visit next week.
But as the man who is set to run China until 2023 takes measure of the United States, he will be sized up not only by Americans but - and perhaps more important for him - by a powerful audience back home in China.
“This is largely a PR visit - something to show the leadership back in Beijing that he’s prepared for leadership, that he can handle the United States,” said Walter Lohman, director of Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Xi will remain China’s vice president for 13 months, but in autumn will inherit the first top title from President Hu Jintao -- that of head of the Chinese Communist Party -- before being anointed state president of the rising Asian power in March 2013.
His formal U.S. host during his tour next Monday to Friday is Vice President Joe Biden, who visited China as Xi’s guest in August.
But Washington is sparing no protocol detail in hosting Xi, who will meet President Barack Obama at the White House, lunch with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and call on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
Before Xi’s visit, U.S. officials and analysts talk less in terms of “deliverables,” or formal agreements, on vexing trade disputes and diplomatic spats over Iran and Syria. Instead, they talk of “investment” in ties with a man set to be in power long after Obama, whatever the result of the U.S. election in November.
“In the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, the ties between the leaders are important out of proportion to what they would be in other bilateral relationships,” said Michael Green, a former top adviser on Asia to President George W. Bush.
“This is a summit, but it’s not a summit,” said Heritage Foundation economist Derek Scissors, who like Green, cautions against expecting policy breakthroughs during Xi’s visit because the vice president still answers to his boss, Hu.
While Xi’s White House meetings will take place on Valentine’s Day on Tuesday, it is not known whether he will be accompanied on the trip by his wife, singer Peng Liyuan.
‘IOWA NICE’ REUNION
After Washington, Xi goes to Iowa, where he will be reunited with a family in Muscatine he stayed with briefly in 1985, when he was a junior animal-feed official in Hebei, Iowa’s sister province.
Terry Branstad, the current governor of Iowa who was also governor during Xi’s earlier visit, told Reuters he considered the man who is now China’s vice president an “old friend” and said next week’s visit was part reunion and part business opportunity for the soybean- and corn-exporting state.
Branstad called on Xi last September in Beijing, where the two reminisced about Xi’s fondness for Iowa hospitality.
“We received such a warm welcome on our first trip to China. We know this is kind of a Chinese tradition and we want to reciprocate,” he said.
Although the stopover will be brief, Branstad said “Iowa Nice” would be on full display for the 58-year-old Xi, who is also known to have visited Oregon and New Jersey when he was governor of provinces with sisterly ties to those U.S. states.
The governor’s 5-year-old granddaughter, Mackenzie, will present flowers to Xi when he lands in Des Moines, said Branstad. The Marriott Hotel in Des Moines has added two Chinese channels to its TV lineup for the visit, hotel staff said.
The state will fete Xi with an “Iowa meal” featuring pork and beef and a salad including soybeans and corn, said Branstad.
“Iowa Nice does pay off,” he said. “We treated him very nice when he came here in 1985. We made a friend.”
Iowa, whose exports to China grew 12-fold, to $627 million from 2000 to 2010, is not the sole -- or even the primary -- target audience for Xi’s visit. That would be Beijing, said Lohman.
“The visit to Iowa is all about showing how he understands the United States, because he’s been there: ‘I know these people. I know how it works,'” he said.
Stephen Orlins, who headed the group that opened U.S. ties with then-Cold War foe China through ping pong matches 40 years ago, said high-level trips to the hinterland helped both countries.
“I hope he gets an impression of America that is unfiltered by the way the Chinese media covers America,” said Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. Chinese media are all state-controlled.
Although little information has been made public on Xi’s final stop, Los Angeles, the visit looks set to showcase that city’s huge port and its role in facilitating trans-Pacific trade and luring Chinese investment to deficit-ridden California.
Xi, joined by Biden, will be the star of an event attended by hundreds of U.S. business officials and to which Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California Governor Jerry Brown have invited the governors of all 50 states, said a source familiar with planning for the two-day visit.
Hollywood does not yet appear on the agenda -- even though Xi famously told the U.S. ambassador over dinner in Beijing in 2007 that he liked Hollywood films, and found U.S. World War Two movies “grand and truthful.”
Even if he skips Tinseltown, which might give him an earful of complaints about rampant Chinese piracy of U.S. films and tight quotas on foreign movies, Xi will be following a tight script throughout his U.S. visit - one set when predecessor Hu made a diplomatic tour of the United States as vice president in April 2002.
“Xi Jinping needs to check all the boxes Hu Jintao did, and that’s the measure,” said former Bush aide Green, now at the Center for Strategic and Internatonal Studies think tank.
“There’s a real need to demonstrate that precedent has been met, and maybe a little extra,” he said.
Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Des Moines; Editing by Peter Cooney