SEATTLE – When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Seattle on his way to Washington, D.C., this week, he’ll be visiting the American state that exports more to his country than any other.
Washington last year sent more than $20 billion in airplanes, wheat, apples and other products to China. Redmond-based Microsoft, Seattle-based Amazon.com and Boeing, with deep roots in the state, are among the companies lining up to capitalize on the president’s visit, focusing on the country’s long-term potential at a time when its economy is troubled.
Xi’s three-day stay, beginning Tuesday, also carries with it an opportunity for him to use the sight of major American companies, from Apple to General Motors, to send a reassuring message home: China is still very much a much sought-after market.
“One of the reasons he’s talking to the high-tech executives is not necessarily for business purposes here, but to convey back to the Chinese audience that, see, Western firms — the biggest Western firms — are still anxious to do business with us,” said David Bachman, a University of Washington professor and former chair of its China Studies Program.
“He’s trying to exude a sense of confidence at a time when some of that self-confidence about China’s economic future has been dissipated,” he said.
The visit comes as friction between the China and the U.S. has grown. Among the sources of tension are hacking attacks on the U.S. said to be directed by Beijing and China’s moves to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Xi has quickly become China’s most powerful leader in decades, cracking down on corruption and activists alike.
Xi is the fourth consecutive Chinese leader to visit Washington state — Deng Xiaoping came in 1979, Jiang Zemin in 1993 and Hu Jintao in 2006.
He plans visits to Boeing’s Paine Field in Everett, Microsoft’s campus in Redmond and a high school in Tacoma, sister city to the Chinese port of Fuzhou. In 1994, as a leader in Fuzhou, Xi signed the sister-city agreement between the ports, as The News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma noted.
A big driver of Washington’s top ranking in terms of China exports is Boeing, which last year sold a record 155 airplanes to Chinese customers.
This year about one-quarter of the planes Boeing has built have gone to China, and over the next 20 years, China is expected to be Boeing’s biggest commercial airplane market, with a projected need for 6,330 new airplanes, worth an estimated $950 billion, the company said.
Washington’s ties to China go beyond business, state leaders were quick to note.
With backing from Microsoft, the University of Washington and Beijing’s Tsinghua University are opening a new technology graduate school in Bellevue called the Global Innovation Exchange. It’s the first Chinese research institution to establish a U.S. location, with students and faculty from both universities working to tackle complex global problems.
Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American governor of any state, recently served as the first Chinese-American U.S. ambassador to China. He said the visit goes beyond raising the profile of Washington state and the Seattle area among the Chinese people and businesses “looking for expansion or looking to buy American products or services.”
Locke said it will give U.S. companies a chance to press some of their concerns.
“For many foreign companies in China, there are concerns about a level playing field; about a strong, transparent legal system that will enforce intellectual property rights; about just being allowed to operate in China,” said Locke, who as ambassador caused a sensation for his humility in carrying his own backpack on his way to the country.
Among the items on Xi’s agenda is a round-table discussion Wednesday moderated by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose Chicago-based Paulson Institute promotes sustainable economic growth in the U.S. and China.
On the U.S. side, chief executives Tim Cook of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and investor Warren Buffett were among those attending. Those reportedly attending from China include Jack Ma of the e-commerce giant Alibaba and Robin Li of the web-services firm Baidu.
The meeting will provide an important opportunity to discuss the U.S.-China business relationship, China’s economy, and the future of Chinese reforms, Paulson said.
“This U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and it’s under real tension and stress right now,” he said. “There are differences that have got to be dealt with, but we can’t let those preclude us from working in the areas where we have a common interest.”