The visit, part of a highly scripted weeklong U.S. tour, was meant to highlight how U.S. food exports such as soybeans represent a bright spot in a relationship that is otherwise mired in turmoil.
By spending two days in Iowa — during which he also reminisced with old acquaintances and shared toasts with various farming officials — Xi’s message was clear: Despite disagreements between the United States and China over human rights, the appropriate response to bloodshed in Syria, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the status of Taiwan, at least the two countries can agree on soybeans.
China is believed to be the ancestral home of the soybean — which is used there in a variety of ways, including in the production of tofu, a major part of the Chinese diet.
Officials traveling with Xi signed agreements to buy more than 8 million tons of soybeans valued at $4.3 billion from the United States; they were working on additional deals Thursday that could result in the purchase of an additional 12 million tons.
U.S. food exports to China have been booming of late, and Iowa was in many ways the perfect venue to highlight the growth. It is the largest U.S. producer not only of soybeans, but also corn and pork.
Last year, China became the biggest customer for U.S. agricultural exports as a whole, with purchases totaling roughly $20 billion.
U.S.-Chinese trade relations outside agriculture have been more contentious. American officials and business leaders have assailed China over intellectual property theft and have been highly critical of its currency valuation and fair-trade practices. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit with China reached $295 billion last year.
On Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney assailed the Obama administration for its China policy, saying in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the policy is headed in “precisely the wrong direction” and calling this week’s meetings with Xi “empty pomp and ceremony.”
The Obama campaign responded, pointing out that Romney had invested in China in the past and implying that his sale of those investments had been driven by political motivations. Romney is trying to “have it both ways,” the campaign said.
For Xi, the trip to Iowa — which he visited 27 years ago as a provincial official — was less about politics and more about burnishing his image.
At a symposium Thursday in Des Moines, he recalled his own days toiling in fields during the tumultuous years of China’s Cultural Revolution.
“I was a farmer in China and even worked as a village head,” he said. “Agriculture, rural areas and farmers have a special place in my heart."
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