By Carey Gillam
DES MOINES (Reuters) - China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, and U.S. agricultural officials in a gathering in America's grainbelt on Thursday stressed their shared interests in fostering increased 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, was then scheduled to travel to a nearby 4,000-acres soybean and corn farm before heading west to Los Angeles to close out his U.S. visit.
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.
In Iowa, Xi 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 it still had need for U.S. soybeans and other food and livestock feed supplies.
The value of American-Chinese agricultural 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 tonnes - to be sold to China this year.
"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 American officials said they will sign a five-year strategic cooperation 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," said Han, through an interpreter speaking at the Agricultural Symposium. "It has already brought huge benefits to companies and businesses."
"We want to further promote our agricultural cooperation."
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavy; Editing by Warren Strobel and Vicki Allen)