WASHINGTON: Despite festering tensions over debt, deficits and currency, US Vice President Joe Biden has one top priority during his trip to Asia this week: get to know China's next generation of leaders.
Biden leaves on Tuesday for a journey to China, Mongolia and Japan in what the White House views as further outreach to a continent at the top of its foreign priority list.
Biden's own priorities are multi-pronged.
He will press Beijing to allow its yuan currency to rise more quickly against the US dollar, praise Mongolia for its successful democracy, and offer solace in Tokyo as it deals with the aftermath of the country's earthquake and tsunami.
But Biden's main goal will be building a relationship with his counterpart, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to become president in 2013.
"Simply put, we're investing in the future of the US-China relationship," Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, said in a conference call.
"One of the primary purposes of the trip is to get to know China's future leadership, to build a relationship with Vice President Xi, and to discuss with him and other Chinese leaders the full breadth of issues in the US-China relationship."
Those issues span human rights, Taiwan, and, casting a shadow over the trip, the recent debate over the yawning US deficit.
As the largest foreign holder of US debt, China wants sound management of Washington's fiscal problems, and berated Washington this month after its near-default on its debt.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed earlier this month on a deal to raise the debt ceiling and cut the deficit, but the divisive political debate helped prompt a downgrade of the US credit rating from Standard and Poor's.
Biden's trip will be the first to China by a high-level US official since the crisis.
"The Chinese are going to be extremely interested in getting his take on what has occurred and what will occur in the US management of its deficit," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a foreign policy expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"I think (there will be) an effort to reassure the Chinese that, despite the downgrade in the credit rating, the US is still strong, that the country will recover, and that China's dollar assets are safe," said Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
It is Biden's first trip to east Asia as vice president and the Obama administration has also invited Xi to come to Washington for a reciprocal visit.
Apart from raising concerns about the United States' economy and debt outlook, China's leaders are likely to press Biden about any plans to sell more weapons, especially new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
At stake is Taiwan's request for 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighter jets, a sale that China has warned would risk inflaming tensions between the two big powers.
People familiar with the matter said the sale of the advanced Lockheed Martin fighter jets is unlikely to go through, although they cautioned that the Obama administration has not made a final decision yet.
The State Department confirmed that no decisions have been made on arms sales to Taiwan.
"The vice president has no plans to raise the Taiwan issue, certainly not arms sales during his trip," said Daniel Russel, a White House national security adviser on Asian affairs. "We take our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act very seriously and we don't negotiate these issues with China."
The getting-to-know-you process will offset the more weighty issues at the heart of Biden's visit.
He will hold meetings with Xi and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing and attend a meeting of US and Chinese business leaders as well as meeting with President Hu Jintao. On the last day of the trip Biden and Xi will have an informal dinner at a local restaurant in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
"This trip will enable Vice President Biden to, you know, as a good politician does, take a read of the other guy," said Lieberthal of Brookings.
Xi, 58, is likely to succeed Hu as Communist Party chief at a party congress in late 2012, and then assume the presidency at a meeting of China's national parliament early in 2013.
His ascendance will not change the basics of the sticking points that dog the US-China relationship.
Last month Xi vowed to crack down on separatist forces he said were led by the Dalai Lama, just days after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader met President Barack Obama at the White House.