Vice President Joe Biden pledged to tackle U.S.-China differences head-on as he welcomed Beijing's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping for talks on Tuesday that could set the tone for relations between the two rival powers over the next decade.
Xi's White House visit was the centrepiece of a U.S. trip that could help the Chinese vice president boost his international standing and show he is capable of steering his country's crucial relationship with Washington.
We're not always going to see eye to eye, Biden told Xi as they sat side-by-side at a conference table. But we have very important economic and political concerns that warrant we work together.
Xi's visit comes at a time when ties between Beijing and Washington -- the world's two biggest economies -- have been buffeted by strains over trade, currency, human rights and military intentions.
He will meet later with President Barack Obama, who faces the challenge of managing increasingly fractious ties with Beijing in a U.S. election year when voters' anti-China sentiment is running high.
Outside the White House gates, about 200 anti-Beijing protesters marched and chanted slogans against China's crackdown in Tibet - an issue that U.S. officials said would figure in talks with Xi.
Chinese officials have carefully choreographed Xi's U.S. trip as a rite of passage in China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition. He is expected to become head of the ruling Communist Party later this year before taking over the presidency in March 2013.
U.S. officials hope the talks will help them gauge the priorities that will be pursued by Xi, who will succeed President Hu Jintao. Xi's views remain largely opaque to policymakers in Washington.
It is a sign of the strength and maturity of our relationship that we are able to talk candidly about our differences, Biden said.
Xi, reciprocating his U.S. counterpart's trip to China last year, said he hoped his visit would strengthen consensus...and deepen our friendship.
SEEKING A SMOOTH START
While Obama will treat Xi to Oval Office talks -- an honour usually reserved for closest allies -- the U.S. president was expected to tread a cautious line in their first meeting.
He will be mindful of the importance of making a smooth start with China's heir apparent but also of the political need to be firm with Beijing as he seeks re-election in November. Republican presidential candidates have accused Obama of being intimidated by China on trade and currency issues.
Xi, 58, arrived in Washington on Monday and held a get-to-know-you dinner with U.S. foreign policy veterans, including former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Xi is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the White House since Obama launched a new U.S. pivot toward Asia in November to counterbalance China's increasing assertiveness in the region.
Like Obama, Xi will not want to come across as a pushover -- in the face of U.S. pressure on trade imbalances, human rights, the violence in Syria and other points of friction. He has to play to a powerful Communist Party apparatus and nationalist sentiment at home.
However, in the build-up to Xi's visit, he and other Chinese officials have played down tensions, voicing hopes for improved cooperation as long as Washington heeds Beijing's concerns.
Xi's tour will take him from Washington to a farm in Iowa to Los Angeles as he looks to assuage Americans' worries about China's strength and intentions. He is a Communist Party princeling -- the son of a revolutionary leader -- but also fond of small-town America and Hollywood war dramas.
Obama's aides see the visit yielding few, if any, formal agreements. Rather, they expect the leaders to size each other up.
But Obama may also want to keep Xi somewhat at arm's length. Many Americans blame China's trade and currency policies for job losses in the U.S. manufacturing sector that have hit important election battleground states such as Ohio especially hard.
A U.S. industry official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said he was pessimistic Xi's visit would yield much progress on issues such as Chinese theft of U.S. trade secrets or forced technology transfer.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Caren Bohan in Washington; and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; editing by Christopher Wilson)