BEIJING // China's vice president will visit the United States this week, not long after Beijing outraged the US with its veto of a UN resolution aimed at ending the violence in Syria.
Xi Jinping, the man expected to be China's next president in a year's time, will meet the US president, Barack Obama, and other Washington officials, visit a soybean farm in Iowa and make a stop in southern California.
Chinese officials last week were quick to say the anger expressed over the vetoes by China and Russia on February 4 would not affect cooperation on other issues.
Cui Tiankai, the vice foreign minister, described Mr Xi's visit as offering a chance for the two countries to reduce a "trust deficit" that vividly contrasts with booming economic, cultural and educational ties between the countries.
"Both sides, China and the United States, have come to realise the need for redoubled efforts to solve this issue and Vice-President Xi's visit this time will provide a very important opportunity to further enhance our mutual trust," Mr Cui told reporters.
But as the man who is set to run China until 2023 takes measure of the US, he will be sized up not only by Americans but - and perhaps more important for him - by a powerful audience back home in China.
"This is largely a PR visit - something to show the leadership back in Beijing that he's prepared for leadership, that he can handle the United States," said Walter Lohman, the director of Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation. The US and China are the world's two biggest economies.
Mr Xi will remain China's vice president for 13 months, but in autumn will inherit the first top title from President Hu Jintao — that of head of the Chinese Communist Party — before being anointed state president in March 2013.
Issues expected to be on the agenda are the value of Chinese currency, with American lawmakers saying China keeps the yuan artificially low to help exporters and, in doing so, harms US manufacturers, and how to rein in the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
Mr Xi and Mr Obama will meet on Tuesday, a day after the 58-year-old vice president arrives. Discussions are also scheduled with the US vice president, Joe Biden; the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton; and the defence secretary, Leon Panetta.
On Wednesday, Mr Xi will go to Capitol Hill - where China is often criticised - to meet senior US senators and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, US officials said.
Hundreds of protesters critical of Chinese policies towards Tibet, Taiwan, the ethnic Uighur minority and the Falun Gong spiritual movement will demonstrate in a park outside the White House on Tuesday, organisers said.
Mr Xi may have strong ties to the United States - he first visited more than a quarter of a century ago and his daughter is studying at Harvard University - but few expect the visit to result in any breakthroughs.
The interdependence between China and the United States "has become stronger and stronger. But there must be some controversies and conflicts. It's been like that for the past 20 years. I don't think that's going to change. These kinds of high-level visits can enhance mutual understanding, but the visit itself cannot solve these problems," said Ting Wai, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Mr Xi then goes to Iowa, where he will be reunited with a family in Muscatine he stayed with briefly in 1985, when he was an animal-feed official in Hebei, Iowa's sister province. His final stop will be in Los Angeles, where he will visit the Port of Los Angeles to showcase the port's role in trans-Pacific trade.
US officials and analysts are watching the visit for insights into what Mr Xi thinks, a subject few outside the Communist Party inner circle know much about.
Analysts have cited the economic liberalism of his father, Xi Zhongxun, a former vice premier and provincial party chief who helped to spearhead the economic boom in southern China, as an indication that the son too may have reformist tendencies.
But beyond the occasional public utterance, Mr Xi himself has given little away, holding to the tradition of officials moving up the ranks of keeping their cards close to the chest.
"He is still almost an unknown entity," said Barry Sautman, an associate professor and political analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "He's worked his way up but without any grand association with a particular achievement or event. That means it's really difficult to tell what he will do based upon what he's done."
In a political system where diverging from the party line usually hurts a career, few expect Mr Xi to be a radical thinker who will institute the kind of political reforms western powers would like to see.
After leaving the US, Mr Xi will travel to Ireland and Turkey before returning to China on February 22.
* With additional reports from Associated Press and Bloomberg News