Chinese President Xi Jinping, facing a skeptical audience on the first day of his week-long visit to the United States, sought to reassure business and government officials over a long list of irritants between the countries, from economic reform to cyber attacks, to human rights and commercial theft.
Delivering a keynote address to some 650 business executives and other guests in Seattle, Xi touched on a litany of issues that have strained U.S.-China ties.
China will not manipulate its currency to boost exports and will never engage in commercial theft, he said, adding it will not discriminate against foreign businesses, will speed its market opening and will make efforts to improve human rights.
"If China and the U.S. cooperate well, they can become a bedrock of global stability...," Xi said. "Should they enter into conflict or confrontation, it would lead to disaster for both countries and the world at large."
Despite his reassuring comments, however, Xi faces questions about actual government policies. He will likely be pressed for specifics as he meets this week with tech and other top business leaders before attending a black-tie state dinner at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama.
Xi completes his U.S. visit with an address at the United Nations.
Level playing field
Prior to his speech, Xi came under a barrage of criticism over China's treatment of U.S. businesses operating in China.
"This week a number of significant deals are being announced alongside President Xi's visit that exemplify American companies' commitment to support China's development both with capital and with world-class technologies," said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
"Nevertheless, we and our companies continue to have serious concerns about an overall lack of legal and regulatory transparency, inconsistent protection of intellectual property, discriminatory cyber and technology policies, and more generally the lack of a level playing field across a range of sectors."
John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a co-sponsor of Tuesday's event, said the group's latest survey of its members "shows a continued steady erosion of confidence in the China business outlook."
Writing in an article in China Business Review before Xi arrived, Frisbie said: "China’s ambitious economic reform program is entering its third year, but with little impact so far on the issues faced by American companies — put simply, China has yet to begin removing market-access barriers across many sectors of China’s economy and build a fairer competitive environment. Business is looking for tangible signals of reforms, but not getting it."
Cyber spying accusations
Responding to allegations that China has been behind cyber attacks affecting U.S. business and government databases, Xi said China, too, has been a victim.
"The Chinese government will not in whatever form engage in commercial thefts or encourage or support such attempts by anyone," Xi vowed.
White House officials said cyber spying will be a key part of discussions between Obama and Xi, but they do not expect the United States to level economic sanctions against China for cyber espionage ahead of Xi's arrival in Washington.
Earlier, a crowd of about 100 people - both for and against Xi's presence - gathered peacefully outside the Westin hotel, where Xi delivered the speech.
'Will not go backward'
Xi said China's economy is on course for fast growth and Beijing remains committed to financial reforms and an open economy.
"China will not go backward in this process," Xi said at a forum for U.S. and Chinese governors in Seattle.
Xi faces questions about his stewardship of the economy, which has been slowing after years of rapid growth, and about his government's heavy intervention in stock markets after key indexes tumbled over the summer.
The United States will urge Xi to avoid "quick fixes" for its economy, such as devaluing its currency, to boost exports, White House chief economist Jason Furman told Reuters on Tuesday.
China's recent loosening of controls on the yuan currency "caused turmoil" in global financial markets and U.S. officials plan to raise the issue of China's volatile stock market, Furman said.
Xi's meetings with Obama and U.S. business leaders offer the chance to bolster the president's stature at home, building on a high-profile military parade earlier this month to mark the end of World War Two, while deflecting attention from the country's recent stock market rout, slowing economy and a chemical explosion at a Tianjin warehouse that killed over 160 people.
In a reminder of potential flashpoints in ties between the two countries, the Pentagon said on Tuesday that a Chinese aircraft performed an unsafe maneuver during an air intercept of a U.S. spy plane off China's northeast coast last week.
Among the few concrete agreements expected to result from the Obama-Xi summit has been a military-to-military confidence building step aimed at reducing the risk of aerial collisions between warplanes in areas such as the South China Sea through adoption of common rules of behavior.