The diplomatic red carpet rarely extends as far as Muscatine, Iowa, an industrious town of 23,000 on the banks of the Mississippi. But it did this week for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who paid a return visit to the town where in 1985 as a provincial official he led a trade mission to learn more about American farming practices.
Xi appears to be the heir apparent as leader of China, which is why he was given star treatment in Washington, D.C. with visits with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
But in Muscatine, the visit was described by the mayor as a reunion of old friends.
Xi stayed two nights in the small Iowa town a quarter century ago, sleeping on the floor of a local boy's bedroom festooned with Star Trek figurines. Eleanor Dvorchak, Xi's host and breakfast companion in 1985, now lives in Florida. She flew back to Muscatine for Xi's return trip, bringing with her a copy of "Obama on the Couch" with an inscription she had written in Chinese.
Other Muscatine residents recalled the 1985 visit exuded an exotic quality because China was just emerging from its international shell. Then, as now, most Muscatine residents were white. Just a handful of Asian Americans live there. The visit this week had a different complexion as U.S.-Chinese relations have grown and at times clashed.
The U.S. visit by Xi carried significance for both countries. It was an opportunity for U.S. officials to take stock of China's new leader and emphasize their concerns that include human rights violations, intellectual property theft and currency valuation.
For Xi and the Chinese, the trip was an opportunity to underscore the importance they place on relations with the United States. With the subtlety of the Chinese, the reunion in Iowa was a gentle reminder that the fate of the two nations lies in building lasting ties among their peoples.
As Xi told the U.S.-China Business Council, cooperation between the world's two economic giants is on a "course that cannot be stopped or reversed."
In a telling footnote to Xi's trip, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged in an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal to confront China as a "currency manipulator" and "prosperous tyranny" on his first day in the White House.
Romney's pugnacious stance took shrapnel from Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama, who dropped out as a Republican presidential candidate and endorsed Romney.
"When it comes to China, I think it's wrongheaded about slapping a tariff on day one." Huntsman said. "That pushes aside the reality, the complexity of the relationship."
That complexity is reflected in Muscatine. Mayor DeWayne Hopkins says Xi is the only person in his hometown's history to receive two keys to the city. Hopkins said Muscatine stopped handing out keys to the city to dignitaries some time ago, but he thought Xi's visit was worth reviving the practice one last time.