Like Chinese leader Hu Jintao before him, President Xi Jinping will use his visit here to underscore the huge stake that American companies in technology and other sectors have in his nation even as issues between the two countries grow more heated.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s decision to hold court in Seattle during his first state visit to the U.S. underscores China’s interest in engaging directly with the captains of West Coast industry — but it’s also a gauntlet thrown at the other Washington.
Other Chinese presidents have shown the same strategic impulse to engage prominently with both the White House and with economic and cultural powers elsewhere in the country.
In 2006, for instance, Hu Jintao visited Boeing and Microsoft facilities in the Seattle area and met with Bill Gates. In 2011 he went to Chicago to meet with business leaders.
But it’s worth noting that relations between the two countries now seem to be at a low point, due to cybersecurity issues and also foreign-policy disagreements ranging from human rights to China’s territorial ambitions, said Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York.
“The U.S.-China relationship as a whole is as tense as it has been since 1989,” the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, Schell said.
Technology trade disputes are becoming one of the main tension points between the U.S. and China, said Samm Sacks, an analyst with political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group. It’s certainly casting a pall over the visit, she said.
Hence the need to foster a rift between Washington, D.C., and America’s buoyant tech sector, which despite challenges and disputes sees in China an immensely lucrative market.
“The Chinese sense a growing divide between the tech industry and Washington,” and seek to exploit it by communicating directly with tech titans here to let them know that China might retaliate against them should America impose sanctions on its firms, Sacks said.
The same divide-and-conquer strategy applies to the governors of states such as California, Iowa and Michigan, where there are also strong economic links to China. Those officials are flocking here, too.
“He clearly wants to get ahead in front of the administration and meet the political leaders before going to D.C.,” said James Reardon-Anderson, a China expert and senior associate dean at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh’s School of Foreign Service.
That dynamic highlights how, underneath the increasingly strong economic links tying the two largest economies on the planet, there’s a sense of rivalry.
It’s not common for leaders of other large powers — such as France, Germany and the U. K.— to set up high-profile events to flex their muscle outside the Beltway during U.S. visits.
But then again, those countries are allies, Reardon-Anderson said. “The relationship between U.S. and China is much more mixed,” he said.
Experts say that the U.S. government is likely to soon deploy targeted sanctions against Chinese firms or individuals who may have benefitted from the theft by hackers of trade secrets from U.S. companies, and from havoc generated by online attacks on U.S. Internet infrastructure.
Beyond the sanctions, China also has other important items to discuss with the leaders of the U.S. tech industry here. China still needs foreign expertise to help grow its own tech sector; on the other hand, U.S. and other firms are facing an increasingly difficult commercial environment in China, says Sacks, the Eurasia Group analyst.
There’s also the issue of convincing American companies to play by Chinese rules. “The Chinese government wants foreign investment in the technology sector, but they want foreign tech companies to be compliant with their own internal security regime,” Sacks said.
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Schell, of the Asia Society, says that it’s clear why both businessmen and state governors would be drawn to the Seattle event, since China represents a huge market. “They’re not conducting foreign policy, they’re seeking to enhance their bottom line,” he said.
But regional officials and corporate titans alike are dealing with a government whose foreign and domestic policy goals go hand in hand with its commercial agenda, said Schell.
“They have to be very careful not to be too naive,” he said.
Timeline of relations between Washington state and China
Sources: Seattle Times archives, Washington State China Relations Council, HistoryLink.org