SEATTLE (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Seattle on Tuesday to kick off a week-long U.S. visit that will include meetings with U.S. business leaders, a black-tie state dinner at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama and an address at the United Nations.
Xi and his wife touched down in an Air China 747 at Paine Field, adjacent to the massive plant where Boeing Co makes its largest jets, some 25 miles (40 km) north of Seattle. They were welcomed by Washington state Governor Jay Inslee.
In downtown Seattle, about 100 people - both for and against Xi’s presence - gathered peacefully outside the Westin hotel. Protesters representing Falun Gong, a religious group that says it is repressed in China, held placards, while well-wishers waved Chinese and U.S. flags and large red cloth signs that read “Hello President Xi” in Chinese characters.
Xi is due to make a policy speech at a banquet at the hotel in the evening in the company of Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates, the chief executives of Boeing Co and Starbucks Corp and other local luminaries.
The Chinese leader’s visit to Seattle, which he called “America’s gateway to Asia” in prepared remarks upon his arrival, comes at a delicate time in U.S.-China relations.
U.S. government and business leaders aim to strike a balance between forging agreements and improving relations with the world’s second-largest economy, while sending strong messages about allegations of Chinese cyber spying and intellectual property violations as well as Internet censorship and China’s disputed territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea.
For the Chinese side, Xi’s meetings with Obama and U.S. business leaders offer the chance to bolster the president’s stature at home, building on a high-profile military parade earlier this month to mark the end of World War Two, while deflecting attention from the country’s recent stock market rout, slowing economy and a chemical explosion at a Tianjin warehouse that killed over 160 people.
In a reminder of potential flashpoints in ties between the two countries, the Pentagon said on Tuesday that a Chinese aircraft performed an unsafe manoeuvre during an air intercept of a U.S. spy plane off China’s northeast coast last week.
Among the few concrete agreements expected to result from the Obama-Xi summit has been a military-to-military confidence building step aimed at reducing the risk of aerial collisions between warplanes in areas such as the South China Sea through adoption of common rules of behaviour.
White House officials said cyber spying will be a key part of discussions between Obama and Xi, but they do not expect the U.S. to level economic sanctions against China for cyber espionage ahead of Xi’s arrival in Washington.
In comments published in the Wall Street Journal before his arrival, Xi said China’s government does not engage in theft of commercial secrets or support companies that do.
“I know that we, like others, will be looking for evidence that the Chinese government is pursuing policies based on those principles,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, the Obama’s administration’s top Asia diplomat, told reporters at a pre-summit briefing.
Xi also said China’s economy faces downward pressure but is still operating within a proper range, adding exchange rate reform will continue and there was no basis for sustained depreciation in the yuan.
The United States will urge Xi to avoid “quick fixes” for its economy, such as devaluing its currency to boost exports, White House chief economist Jason Furman told Reuters on Tuesday.
China’s recent loosening of controls on the yuan currency “caused turmoil” in global financial markets and U.S. officials plan to raise the issue of China’s volatile stock market, Furman said.
The Chinese president is due to tour Boeing’s widebody plant and the nearby Microsoft campus on Wednesday, and will later meet Warren Buffett, Apple Inc Chief Executive Tim Cook and Amazon.com head Jeff Bezos, among 30 U.S. and Chinese business leaders at a roundtable discussion.
U.S. tech companies are seeking to expand access to the Chinese consumer market. Even if no formal agreements are reached, the presidential blessing “sends an important message to Chinese leadership” to help them, said Ed Lazowska, Bill and Melinda Gates chair of computer science at the University of Washington.
For Boeing, the visit could bring a formal announcement of plans for an aircraft finishing plant in China. The plant would help Boeing’s Chinese sales, analysts say, and help counter a threat from Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd [CMAFC.UL], which is developing a single-aisle aircraft to challenge the top-selling Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 planes.
Xi and Ray Conner, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive, are due on Wednesday to tour the Everett, Washington, factory where Boeing makes widebody planes such as the 777 and 787 Dreamliner. Airbus opened an assembly line in China in 2008 and recently won a landmark, $11 billion order from China.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said on Tuesday he sees scope for additional 737 work going to China as the company continues to increase production rates of the single-aisle jetliner.
Additional reporting by Alwyn Scott, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Writing by Bill Rigby and Ken Wills; Editing by Alan Crosby, Toni Reinhold