DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The vice president of China is spending a good deal of his U.S. trip in Iowa, a state better known for hosting American presidential candidates than major heads of state. So why is this rural place playing such a big role in the leader's historic tour of the United States?
The answer lies in the way Xi Jinping (shee jeen ping) likes to do business — by building personal relationships — and in Iowa's rich agricultural industry, which is closely tied to China's.
"He's very outgoing, very personable," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who met with Xi in 1985, when a Chinese delegation visited Iowa to study farming practices and again last year, when Branstad led a trade mission to China.
"People that meet him like him," the governor said. "He made friends instantaneously in Iowa."
Branstad was two years into his first term as governor in 1985 when he met Xi, who was then a rising communist party leader from an agricultural province in northern China. Both were in their 30s.
When they met again in Beijing, Branstad had returned to the governor's office after a decade out of politics, and Xi had ascended to vice president. He's expected to become China's top leader next year.
At that 2011 meeting, Xi recalled the exact day they had met in 1985, the names of many of Branstad's staff members and some of the people he had met in the small town of Muscatine, where he had visited farms and local industries.
That trip seems to have impressed Xi. And despite having a busy diplomatic schedule that will take him from Washington to California, he insisted on returning Wednesday to Muscatine for a reunion with the people he met 27 years ago.
His delegation drove up to a historic downtown home in the afternoon, and Xi quickly walked through a light rain to the porch, where he was met by Branstad and others. He soon sat down for tea while photographers and video crews recorded the interaction.
Xi also attended a state dinner hosted by Branstad and other officials in Des Moines on Wednesday and will launch the first U.S.-China Agriculture Symposium on Thursday.
"Iowa stands at the forefront of such national cooperation between China and the United States," Xi said at the state dinner Wednesday night. "Some statistics in the last decade show Iowa exports to China have grown by other 13 times."
Xi will also visit a farm in Maxwell, 20 miles northeast of Des Moines, on Thursday, where his host Rick Kimberly plans to show Xi combines and planters and to discuss precision farming, which uses GPS-controlled equipment to guide tractors to a within inches of a field's edge.
Kimberley's equipment allows him to precisely control the amount of seed, fertilizer, chemicals and water. That lowers costs, reduces chemical runoff and boosts production.
"For us, it's about building relationships, partnerships and continuing friendships," said Kimberley said. He wants "to prove to China that we are a reliable source of soybeans, corn and pork, and they can depend on us to produce a healthy product."
Biotechnology, including the use of hybrids and genetically modified plants designed to resist pests and disease, may also come up. It's a touchy one with the Chinese, who have been skeptical of genetically modified crops and were slow to approve their use.
Such technology, however, has been instrumental in doubling crop yields in the last 40 years.
Since Xi's first visit, Iowa's agricultural exports to China have grown 1,300 percent, Branstad said.
The Iowa-China connection is paying other dividends, too. On Wednesday in Des Moines, a delegation of Chinese executives and government officials agreed to buy $4.31 billion worth of U.S. soybeans. Coupled with additional soybean contracts that will be signed later this week in Los Angeles, the deals make up the largest soybean commitment ever made during one trip.
U.S. companies involved include Cargill, ADM and Ag Processing Inc., a farmer-owned cooperative and Iowa's largest soybean processor.
Xi didn't attend the signing, but it has been arranged to coincide with his visit.
"The Chinese recognize Iowa as the epicenter of agriculture, and that's why they wanted to do the event here," said Grant Kimberley, director of market development for the Iowa Soybean Association. "With the vice president coming, it adds a whole other layer of importance to it."
As the nation's leading soybean producer, Iowa plays a significant role in supplying China, where the rapidly expanding middle class is eating more meat. That means there's a growing need for larger livestock herds, which require more protein-rich soybeans for feed.
Every fourth row of soybeans grown in the United States now goes to China, Kimberley said.
Xi's decision to stop in Iowa has generated new interest in the state among other Chinese leaders. The governor of Hebei province, which has a sister state relationship with Iowa, is also visiting with about 50 people. He's been speaking at schools and meeting with company officials ahead of Xi's visit.
"There are so many opportunities to put folks together sitting at tables to talk about what they're doing," Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said. "There will be seeds planted with this that we may not actually see for years."
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley in Muscatine and Mike Glover in Des Moines contributed to this report.