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Xi to nurture pro-China allies on US trip

Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a high-profile state visit to the White House this week, but stops first in Washington state to shore up support among skittish allies, especially big business.

A 21-gun salute will ring out from the South Lawn of the White House, the staff will break out the new "Kailua blue" state china and, if you believe many analysts, little else will happen when Xi meets President Barack Obama later this week.

"The summit will probably end up with some useful conflict avoidance or reassurance agreements, but no fundamental progress on the core problems on the security side," said Michael Green, a former National Security Council official now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

But before Washington DC, the Chinese leader on Tuesday heads to Seattle for three days of meetings that may prove equally important for the world's most consequential bilateral relationship.

The Seattle talks will be heavily focused on business, trade and economics. And, of course, geopolitics will be at play.

Xi will meet with leaders from technology and industrial companies like Microsoft and Boeing, as well as the governors of California, Michigan, Iowa, Oregon and Washington.

Both firms have helped temper the anti-Chinese sentiment that runs through US public opinion, with a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll showing 41 per cent of Americans view China's military as a critical threat to US interests.

Washington state has already received three Chinese presidents: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

"We have a long history of co-operation between Washington state and China," Gary Locke, a former Washington state governor and former US ambassador to China, told AFP.

"We have the cultural, historical and economic ties.

"We know the value of international trade and we know the value of exports to China and how many thousands of good-paying jobs it supports here in the state of Washington."

When the Republican governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker recently suggested Xi be denied a full state visit -- with its symbolic recognition of China as an equal partner -- he was shot down by his own party.

Terry Branstad, the governor of electoral swing state Iowa, spoke of a personal relationship with Xi that dates back years, saying "I'm proud that he calls me an old friend".

Branstad's amity is more than just personal. Since a Xi visit there three decades ago, China has become a leading purchaser of Iowa soybeans and pork.

But China's economic slowdown and apparent tolerance of industrial espionage are calling those alliances into question.

After years of breakneck growth, China's economy is set to expand at a more modest clip, meaning exports from Iowa, Ohio or elsewhere are now in doubt.

At the same time, Beijing is aggressively championing its own state-backed companies to compete on the world stage and with Western rivals, who say the deck is stacked against them.

Some are being forced to locate their computer servers and other critical infrastructure inside China, raising the risk that their intellectual property is vulnerable.

"The business community is now more divided. There has been what you might call a Balkanization of the business community in China, into the have and have nots," said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst also now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"The result of that is less unified pressure in the US system on the administration to push smooth and steady relations."

President Obama recently urged US business to more publicly speak out about Chinese industrial espionage.

"When your companies have a problem in China and you want us to help, you have to let us help," Obama told business leaders ahead of Xi's visit.

"We are not effective with the Chinese unless we are able to present facts and evidence of a problem. Otherwise, they'll just stonewall and slow-walk issues."

The undercutting of pro-Chinese business and regional allies comes just as the 2016 election is set to re-ignite anti-China rhetoric.

A new national security law would also put US universities, non-government groups and others in the firing line and has rekindled criticism over China's human rights record, an issue long on the back burner.

"There are many Americans whose families have suffered under Xi," New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith told AFP. "Their stories deserve to be front and centre during his visit."

"A 'charm offensive' is truly offensive," he said. "It "won't work with the American people, who admire China's history and culture, but not the brutal repression that Xi has unleashed against the Chinese people."