WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's top White House national security aide lands in Beijing on Sunday, signaling that ties with China remain a priority despite turmoil and tensions tearing at US foreign policy.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice is expected to meet President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials in talks which come two weeks after Washington accused a Chinese fighter jet of buzzing one of its spy planes.
The talks will likely focus on key areas of contention between Washington and Beijing - including China's maritime territorial disputes with US allies in the region and a long-running cyber-hacking row between the two powers.
Rice will also help set the table for a one-on-one summit between Obama and Xi which is being planned to coincide with the US leader's visit to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing in November.
The Obama-Xi summit could take place in an informal setting, following up on the meeting the two leaders held in California last year. Obama and Xi could also come face-to-face at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, though no meeting has been announced.
Rice's visit is intended as a signal that despite being pulled into a new conflict in the Middle East against the Islamic State and being consumed by a showdown with Russia over Ukraine, Washington remains committed to its policy of reorienting US power to Asia.
"The administration remains committed to our rebalance to Asia, and that includes close and continuing consultation with top Chinese leadership directly from the White House," said Patrick Ventrell, a National Security Council spokesman.
"The reality is that there are few global problems of the 21st century that will be solved without the US and China at the table, and as such we believe it is important to maintain direct and close contact with Chinese leadership on a range of pressing issues." Rice visits Beijing at a time when other top US foreign policy officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel and the top White House counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, are fanning out across the Middle East to build a coalition to take on IS.
The fact that Rice will be in China at the same time is intended to demonstrate the importance Obama attaches to ties with Beijing, a White House official said.
"In spite of all the rest that is going on, this remains a very high priority," the official said.
Rice is officially the guest of Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi, but as well as seeing Xi, is also expected to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other key officials.
She will be in Beijing after China told the United States to end air and naval surveillance near its borders, which it said was damaging relations between the Pacific powers and could lead to "undesirable accidents." The latest irritant came when Washington said an armed Chinese fighter jet flew dangerously close last month to a US military aircraft, off Hainan Island over the South China Sea - in an incident which recalled a standoff over a downed US spy plane in Hainan in the same area in 2001.
Rice may also take the opportunity to restate Washington's support for democracy in Hong Kong, after Beijing bristled at its backing for protestors who are demanding universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.