BEIJING //During a four-day visit to China that began yesterday evening, the US vice president, Joe Biden, is expected to discuss arms sales to Taiwan, Beijing's holdings of American government debt and other pressing issues.
Yet many observers believe Mr Biden's priority will be learning more about his opposite number, the man who invited him to China, Xi Jinping, who appears destined to take over the leadership of the world's most populous nation.
The two vice presidents will together tour the south-western province of Sichuan, ravaged by an earthquake in 2008. They will also hold several other meetings during a visit that comes more than three decades since Mr Biden first came to China in 1979 soon after diplomatic relations between the United States and China were established.
When Mr Biden arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport yesterday afternoon he was accompanied by his daughter, Ashley Blazer Biden, and met on the tarmac by Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister. The new US ambassador to China, the former commerce secretary Gary Locke, was also present.
According to Chan Chepo, an assistant professor of political science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, "the major goal of this trip is to understand more about Xi Jinping".
Mr Xi is likely to replace Hu Jintao as the head of the Communist Party late next year, before taking over the presidency from Mr Hu early in 2013.
"The American side knows relatively little about Xi Jinping," Mr Chan said. "Biden will take every opportunity to observe Xi Jinping, to try to understand more about his character, about his stance to the US, a lot of things they want to know about Xi Jinping."
A 58-year-old son of a communist revolutionary, Xi Zhongxun, Mr Xi has given little away about his own policy leanings during a rise through the ranks that included managing the 2008 Olympics. He is married to a famous singer, Peng Liyuan, and has one daughter, said to be studying at Harvard under a pseudonym.
Mr Biden will also hold meetings with Mr Hu and Wen Jiabao, China's premier. It comes soon after Chinese official media lambasted the US for its "addiction to debts" following the decision by Standard & Poor's to downgrade US long-term debt from its previous AAA rating. China is the largest holder of US Treasury debt, owning US$1.2 trillion (Dh4.4 trillion).
China's official Xinhua news agency yesterday said it expected Mr Biden to "assure Chinese leaders of Washington's capacity, will, and commitment to tackle its fiscal and economic challenges". The commentary added that "real relief appears nowhere in sight" and said the US must "consider long-term, not short-term solutions, and carry out responsible and effective measures to cure its debt addiction".
Zha Daojiong, a professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University, said he did not think it was on the agenda for "China to press the US to solve the debt crisis".
"There is very little space for China to press the US, hoping that somehow the US would move according to China's wish," he said.
China has not been shy however to pressure the US over arms sales to Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing considers a renegade province. During his visit, Mr Biden may outline a reported decision by the US not to supply Taiwan with new fighter jets. Rather than selling Taiwan F16C/D aircraft, the US is believed to have decided to provide upgrades for existing F16A/B jets.
"They will continue to provide weapons to Taiwan but ... not the up-to-date versions. They will provide them with the minimum Taiwan needs," Mr Chan said.
After China, Mr Biden heads to Mongolia for a day and Japan for two days. A reciprocal visit by Mr Xi to the US is expected by early next year.