By Carey Gillam and Edwin Chan
LOS ANGELES/DES MOINES (Reuters) - China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, gathered with U.S. agricultural officials in America's grainbelt on Thursday and stressed their shared interests in fostering increased food security and trade in farm goods.
Extending his visit to the top U.S. soybean- and corn-growing state of Iowa, Xi and Chinese Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu met with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Des Moines to kick off what was billed as the first-ever U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium.
Xi, China's vice president, then traveled to a nearby 4,000-acres soybean and corn farm, his last Iowa stop before heading west to Los Angeles to close out his U.S. visit with a brisk tour of the city's port -- the U.S. gateway for everything from electronics to clothing from China.
Visiting the family farm of Rick and Martha Kimberley, Xi peppered the fifth-generation farmers with questions about crop prices, marketing and finances.
"This is away from the sound and the fury of the cities, and the air here is very fresh," said Xi, whose first visit to the United States was an Iowa farm study tour and homestay in 1985.
"This is a very homey environment," Xi said through an interpreter, displaying a down-to-earth style that sets him apart from most previous Chinese leaders and has won admirers during a key get-acquainted tour of the United States.
"He is widely known as practical, hard-working, and down-to-earth. These attributes resonate strongly with all of us here in America," U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson said of Xi based on meetings in Washington early this week.
Xi surveyed the barren and frozen fields of the Kimberley's farm with some 70 Chinese and U.S. officials and checked out their combine harvester and seed planter before climbing up into a John Deere tractor trailer for a photo op.
But as he toured Iowa, a partisan U.S. battle over China policy was playing out, underscoring how domestic politics make it difficult for Washington and Beijing to set smooth relations.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacked President Barack Obama's China policy, saying in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the Democratic president's meetings with Xi were "empty pomp and ceremony" and that his China policy was going in "precisely the wrong direction.
Obama's presidential campaign fired back, accusing Romney of wanting to "have it both ways." It said Romney had made investments in China that were sold for $1.5 million last August in what the campaign suggested was a move driven by politics.
The campaign also said despite Romney's charges that the administration was soft on trade, he had criticized Obama for enforcing U.S. trade laws on Chinese tire exports.
Most U.S. China experts say that, campaign sniping aside, policy continuity has been the hallmark of American presidents' policies toward China since Richard Nixon broke the Cold War ice with a landmark trip to Beijing 40 years ago.
Xi, 58, is all but certain to take over the top slot in China's ruling Communist Party later this year and then become China's next president in March 2013.
In Los Angeles, Xi was ferried straight from the airport to China Shipping's terminal at the city's main maritime port, which shuffled an estimated $133 billion of goods to and from the world's No. 2 economy in 2011.
Neither Xi nor LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or California governor Jerry Brown mentioned a persistent thorn in U.S.-China relations: accusations that an undervalued yuan was helping sustain a bulging American trade deficit.
Instead, the Chinese leader-in-waiting joked and chatted with a carefully selected contingent of state-run China Shipping's captains and officers, and stuck to mostly cursory remarks.
Several port officials took pains to point out that the volume of goods shipped to the Asian country was steadily increasing - it is now the fastest-growing U.S. export market.
Others highlighted the port's teaming up with China Shipping to equip berths with plug-in power outlets, reducing pollution by substituting shore-side electricity for diesel power.
"This successful cooperation is a good foundation for the further development of U.S. trade and economic cooperation," Xi told reporters, officers and government officials at the port.
Brown at one point quipped that California was more advanced in terms of clean technology than the U.S. capital, Washington D.C., a situation he said was akin to that of Shanghai - which Xi briefly oversaw - and Beijing.
The Chinese vice president was once party secretary of the affluent eastern Chinese city, which prides itself on being more progressive and advanced than the capital city.
THAT SPECIAL FEELING...
Xi was rather more eloquent in Iowa, where he cited a "special feeling" for farmers and rural communities, and said it was a high priority for China to support farmers and rural development.
"China attaches great importance to food security, and ensuring a sufficient food supply for 1.3 billion people," Xi said in an address to government and business leaders attending the symposium.
Xi said China had sufficient reserves for key grains and edible oils and had stabilized the country's food security concerns, but still had need for U.S. soybeans and other food and livestock feed supplies.
The value of U.S.-China farm trade ties was underscored on Wednesday when Chinese soybean buyers shadowing Xi's visit announced they would buy more than $4 billion in U.S. soybeans this year. More deals are expected to be announced Thursday that officials said should add up to a record amount of U.S. soybeans - some 12 million tones - to be sold to China this year.
Iowa saw its exports to China -- mostly farm goods -- grow 1,200 percent from 2000-2010, Governor Terry Branstad said.
"We are the world's two largest agricultural producers and strong collaborators in agricultural research and education," said Vilsack.
"The expertise, technical know-how, research and combined will of our two nations can go a long way to filling empty stomachs and improve incomes and economies around the world."
Vilsack said strengthening the often-contentious relationship between the United States and China was critical as food security concerns become a top priority amid a rapidly growing world population.
Chinese and U.S. officials said they will sign a five-year strategic cooperation pact that will outline priorities for the two countries to focus on long-term food security as the overarching goal.
"Agriculture is an important area where our interests converge," Han told the Agricultural Symposium through an interpreter. "It has already brought huge benefits to companies and businesses."
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doug Palmer in Washington, Paul Eckert in Des Moines; editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham)