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Chinese president woos big business as US visit begins

[SEATTLE] Chinese President Xi Jinping begins his US state visit in the West Coast hub of Seattle Tuesday aiming to woo American businesses and take the edge off the White House's wariness of the Asian giant.

Mr Xi will set the tone of his visit in meetings and a keynote speech to leaders of states like Washington which do substantial business with China, as well as the heads of top companies with huge China interests such as Boeing and Microsoft.

With the Obama administration increasingly at odds with Beijing over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, cyber theft of US business secrets and alleged unfair business practices against US investors in China, Mr Xi could have his best chance to clear some air while in Seattle.

But he also has to balance that with a demonstration to the public back home that the United States takes his country seriously as a peer among global superpowers.

The Seattle speech late Tuesday will be his only major address while in the United States. He will follow that with a roundtable meeting early Wednesday of top US and Chinese corporate chieftains aiming to underscore the centrality - to China at least - of trade and investment to the relationship, while downplaying political issues.

He will also make trips to Boeing and Microsoft, as well as a Seattle high school he visited years ago as a lower-level official.

In lavishing attention on Seattle, he follows in the footsteps of three other Chinese presidents: Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

"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," Gary Locke, a former Washington governor and ex-US ambassador to China, told AFP.

With little hope of settling major political differences during a summit later this week with President Barack Obama, in Seattle "the meeting is the message," said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While few doubt Mr Xi's power in China and determination to elevate its status on the global stage, he nevertheless has to convince his hosts - and especially the politicians already running in the 2016 presidential election - that he can work with them.

US businesses are worried about Beijing's increased support for its own companies when they compete head-to-head with American investors.

And many are concerned that Beijing does not have a firm hand on the sudden downturn of its economy - the world's second largest - which has fueled turmoil in global financial markets.

Yet US businesses are reticent to complain directly to the Chinese, Mr Obama recently noted.

"When your companies have a problem in China and you want us to help, you have to let us help," he told business leaders ahead of Mr 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 stealing of US business secrets by Chinese hackers will be a top issue in Seattle and in the US capital. The Obama administration is reportedly weighing placing punitive sanctions on some top Chinese officials to get Beijing to take action over the problem.

Showing that it is now taking that issue seriously, earlier this month one of China's most senior security officials, Meng Jianzhu, came to Washington to discuss it with the White House.

Even so, "sanctions are still on the table," said CSIS security specialist Bonnie Glaser.

Mr Xi will also have to be careful not to supply more ammunition to US politicians, especially those in the 2016 White House race, who see bashing China as an easy way to sound tough to American voters.

Human rights - especially China's tough new national security law being used to crack down on political and social dissent - will be in focus.

The visit has already come under a minor cloud after news that a US businesswoman, Sandy Phan-Gillis, has been held by Chinese security officials for six months over alleged espionage, according to her supporters.