SEATTLE — This city is supposed to offer a soft landing for Chinese leaders at the start of U.S. visits. It’s why for decades they’ve stopped here to shake hands, visit a factory (usually Boeing’s) and generate some friendly press — Washington state’s largest export market is China — before heading off to deal with thornier matters.
On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping of China will follow tradition when his plane touches down here on a seven-day U.S. tour, which will include a formal state dinner at the White House on Thursday followed by a major speech at the United Nations.
But this soft landing is looking a bit rough.
Tensions between the two nations are running high, with disputes over computer hacking, cyber-plundering and limits on U.S. firms’ access to Chinese markets. In recent weeks, the Obama administration privately debated unleashing economic sanctions on Chinese businesses for cyber-theft of U.S. intellectual property. Sanctions hitting before Xi arrived would have tarnished the trip. And although the sanctions were delayed, the ill will was not.
Suspicion now hangs over even ordinary events, such as a Chinese American Internet summit set to occur during Xi’s visit to Seattle, with accusations that Chinese officials strong-armed U.S. tech titans into attending.
A minor meet-and-greet in Seattle between Xi and U.S. elected officials provided a fresh opportunity to offend after the four Republican members of Washington state’s congressional delegation bowed out of the informal gathering. Republicans have criticized President Obama for even hosting a dinner for the Chinese leader.
“So much of this is atmospherics,” said Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noting how the rhetoric has ratcheted up in recent weeks.
The Seattle trip, he said, “already seems to have greater import than it normally would.”
Hank Paulson, a former Treasury secretary and now chairman of the Paulson Institute, who is hosting a U.S.-China business roundtable in Seattle, said the relationship between the two countries is the most important in the world.
“It’s under real pressure right now,” Paulson said. “But the fact that we are having this state visit at a time when there is increased tension is proof that both sides see how important this relationship is.”
The pressure has risen as China displays a new assertiveness, from its plans to build military bases in the South China Sea to Chinese hackers reportedly infiltrating U.S. computer networks to steal nuclear power plant designs and search-engine code.
But China also knows U.S. firms covet its massive market, even with the recent economic hardships. The world’s largest smartphone market is in China. It has a growing middle class of 200 million people.
The prominence of China’s market can be seen in the expected attendees at Paulson’s roundtable: Tim Cook of Apple, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, General Motors’ Mary Barra and Disney’s Bob Iger. They will be joined by Jack Ma of Alibaba, Pony Ma of Tencent and Robin Li of Baidu, among others.
The bulk of international intrigue has fallen on the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum, a normally drab affair that, in prior years, has not registered a ripple of attention. Last year, it was held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, where hundreds of not-quite-bold names from top tech firms and government groups talked shop.
“Outside of a very small niche, no one knows what this thing is,” said Sacha Meinrath, director of the tech policy institute X-Lab, who attended last year’s forum.
That’s not the case this year. The forum was moved up from its usual December date and to Seattle to coincide with Xi’s visit. Top tech firms were informed by Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar, that they needed to send top representatives, said James Mulvenon, vice president for intelligence at Defense Group in Vienna, Va.
Mulvenon said he has heard from “multiple firms” that were warned that their companies would face greater regulatory scrutiny if they didn’t comply. He said the message was hard to miss: “Your lack of presence will hurt your business.”
“This is about Lu Wei trying to emphasize to Chinese leadership the power and leadership he has,” Mulvenon said.
China has made business difficult for U.S. tech firms. Google and Facebook are blocked by state censors. In February, Chinese authorities forced Qualcomm to pay $975 million for allegedly charging unfairly high licensing fees. Microsoft agreed to offer free upgrades to Windows 10 to all users in China, even those running pirated copies.
But Segal, the China policy expert, said U.S. tech firms would be reluctant to ignore Wei.
“It’d be very embarrassing for Lu Wei if the tech companies don’t show,” he said.
Multiple tech companies either declined to comment on the forum or did not respond to requests.
Several U.S. government officials, including from the State Department, are expected at the forum, too, as they have been in the past.
But Xi’s visit promises some drama-free events, too. He’s scheduled to visit Lincoln High in Tacoma, Wash., a school he visited as a provincial official in 1993. He will visit a Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., as China is increasingly important to the U.S. aerospace company.
Although Chinese customers account for 25 percent of Boeing’s commercial plane orders, China is projected to be its largest customer within 20 years, Boeing said.
Xi also will give a policy speech Tuesday night in Seattle.
But Xi will not be dining with Microsoft’s Bill Gates at his mansion, despite numerous reports that that would happen, according to several people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Xi will then fly to Washington on Thursday, just as another dignitary will be leaving the nation’s capital. Pope Francis is scheduled to depart for New York on Thursday afternoon.