Local officials are planning for a possible visit to Seattle by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is scheduled to make his first state visit to the White House in late September.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington, D.C., later this month, he’ll face a list of contentious issues — from economic tensions, to his country’s increasing military assertiveness in the South China Sea, to alleged cyberattacks by Chinese hackers.
But if he visits Seattle first — a very distinct possibility — his reception in this Washington is likely to be far friendlier.
“Washington state sees China more as an opportunity, whereas Washington, D.C., tends to see China more as a threat,” said David Bachman, a China specialist and professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.
President Xi is scheduled to meet President Obama in the White House and to address the United Nations General Assembly, in late September.
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Before he does so, he may be stopping in Seattle.
Gov. Jay Inslee and the state congressional delegation invited Xi last spring to visit the state. About a month ago, a committee headed by former Govs. Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire formed to plan for such a visit.
“They have engaged in conversations about what that visit would look like and there’s been advance planning,” said David Postman, spokesman for Inslee. “But there hasn’t been confirmation” from the Chinese government yet.
If a visit to Seattle takes place, it would likely be before Xi goes to the East Coast, Postman said.
Gregoire said the Chinese government has sent people to look at potential local sites that Xi might visit.
“We know that they’re taking the invitation very seriously, which means we have to be ready,” she added.
Giving very short notice of confirmation for such a visit is not unusual, said Locke, who helped plan the last visit of a Chinese president to this state — Hu Jintao in 2006. For that visit, official confirmation came just a few weeks before the visit.
The committee working on a visit by Xi includes state and city officials, various trade and business organizations and major companies including Microsoft and Boeing that have experience from planning the last visit in 2006, Locke said.
The goal would be to “showcase the incredible ties, the strong ties — cultural, business and historical — between Washington and China,” said Locke, who also served as U.S. ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014.
The idea is to show not just major companies but also to “get a flavor of the people, the community, the companies of Washington state.”
Locke declined to say what specific organizations or places Xi might visit.
A visit to a large company such as Boeing or Microsoft is usually on the agenda for such visiting dignitaries. But also being discussed are visits to smaller businesses, research centers, nonprofits and more.
Locke said the planning is not just about “visiting Seattle and Washington state with local events.” There might be meetings here with governors and with corporate executives, from around the United States, along with discussion of broader issues such as climate and green energy, he said.
The Des Moines Register reported that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who has known Xi since he visited the state as a Chinese agricultural official, told reporters he hopes to join other governors in a meeting with Xi in Seattle this month.
Washington state and China have extensive business and cultural ties, with a history dating back to the 1860s, when the first Chinese came to Seattle.
China is now Washington’s top trading partner, with $20.7 billion of the state’s exports going to China in 2014, and $8.3 billion worth of goods imported from China.
The Seattle area has played host to Chinese leaders over the years, from Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to Jiang Zemin in 1993 and Hu Jintao in 2006.
There are also numerous partnerships between businesses, universities and cities in Washington and in China. This year, the University of Washington and Tsinghua University of Beijing announced a partnership to run a graduate institute in Bellevue focusing on technology and innovation — the first time a Chinese research university has established a physical presence in the United States.
For Xi, who has rapidly consolidated power in China but faces questions about his management of a slowing economy, a visit to Seattle could play well.
When Jiang came to Seattle in 1993, he visited a Boeing worker’s home, recalled UW professor Bachman.
Xi, likewise, “will probably do some kind of staged event that looks like he can connect with ordinary Americans,” Bachman said.
On TV back in China, that would show that “their leader is open, that ordinary Americans want to meet him,” he said.
“To some extent, he’s an aloof-type leader back home,” Bachman said. “But he also has some elements of trying to develop a common touch.”
A visit to Seattle also could be a gentle entry point to the U.S. trip for Xi.
Given U.S.-China tensions on everything from human-rights concerns to territorial claims in the South China Sea, “Seattle may represent the feel-good portion of the trip,” said Susan Whiting, associate professor in the UW’s political science department. “A stop in Seattle puts the focus on the ‘win-win’ aspects of U.S.-China relations.”