Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s trip to the United States includes an unusual stop for a visiting dignitary: the Midwestern state of Iowa. The reasons are personal and professional. Xi will be returning to a state that hosted him early in his political career. And Iowa is a major source of the farm products that China depends on to feed itself and its livestock. Experts say it’s a relationship that is expected to grow in the coming years.
Xi Jinping first came to Iowa in 1985 as a junior official from China's Hebei province. That three-day visit included informal meetings with a hog farmer and a small vegetable grower, and had none of the trappings of his current U.S. tour. Back then, Xi stayed in the Muscatine, Iowa, home of Sarah Lande and her family.
“He slept in the kids’ room, with the toys, and sat at the table with the kids and the dogs," said Lande. "And he just got in the car with all of us. Not anything so special.”
But the visit left an impression on Xi. During his return to Iowa, he is making time for tea with the Landes and others he met here back in 1985.
“We feel just so special that he remembered us for the hospitality,” Lande said.
Aside from visiting old friends, Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes says the main reason Xi Jinping is visiting Iowa is fairly simple.
Stephanie Vermeulen measures the growth of a corn stalk in a Pioneer greenhouse in Johnston, February 9, 2012
“China is rapidly running out of land and the kinds of products [it] produce[s], such as corn and soybeans," Hayes said. "And I think they want to make sure that they have good political connections with places in the world that have a surplus of land.”
China is losing farmland to urbanization, environmental degradation and land reclamation projects.
Meanwhile, its demand for food and livestock feed is growing rapidly. Agriculture is one rare part of the U.S.-China trade relationship in which the United States runs a surplus. In 2010, China exported about $3 billion worth of agricultural products to the U.S., but imported more than $17 billion. Eleven billion dollars of that was soybeans.
Hayes says China has become the number-one destination for U.S. agriculture exports. “That’s emerged only in the last five years or so. Export growth to China has just been phenomenal," Hayes said. "It’s not just corn and soybeans. At the moment they’re our number-one volume market for pork, for example.”
Iowa is the number-one U.S. producer of pork, as well as corn and soybeans. So it makes sense that the presumed future leader of China would visit the state.
The visit is important, Hays says, but his expectations are modest.
“Hopefully some goodwill and better trade," said Hayes. "Certainly we can use the markets and they can use our products. It’s a win-win situation.”
On Thursday, Iowa will host the first-ever U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium, focusing on food safety, food security and sustainable agriculture.