BEIJING - US Secretary of State John Kerry met Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday, as Washington's security allies Tokyo and Manila fret over China's far-reaching territorial claims.
Kerry started his Valentine's Day visit with discussions with Xi at the Great Hall of the People, followed by talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The top US diplomat's trip comes at a pivotal moment for the region, with flaring disputes between Beijing and Tokyo over their World War II history and disputed islands in the East China Sea sending relations between the Asian powers plummeting to their lowest point in recent years.
The issue of North Korea is also high on the agenda for Kerry's visit, with Washington hoping to secure Beijing's help in prodding its belligerent ally to take concrete steps towards denuclearisation.
At his talks with Wang, Kerry told reporters that his meeting with Xi "was a very constructive one, very positive, and I'm glad we had an opportunity to dig into the detail of some of the North Korea challenges".
China stands ready to work with the US, Wang said, "so that we can truly reflect the principle of non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in all aspects of our relationship".
Later, Kerry stressed the need to "set an example for this major-power relationship".
"I think the world is always waiting to see whether China and the United States can find the common ground despite some differences," he said.
Fears of an aerial or maritime clash over the East China Sea islands have spiked following Beijing's recent declaration of an air defence identification zone in the area's skies, which Washington condemned. Chinese and Japanese patrol boats regularly shadow each other in the waters near the islands.
At the same time Beijing has been acting increasingly assertively in the South China Sea, which it claims almost in its entirety.
- 'Meaningful action' -
In remarks Thursday night before leaving Seoul, the first leg of his Asia trip, Kerry reaffirmed that the East China Sea islands, called Diaoyu by Beijing and Senkaku by Tokyo, fall under the security treaty that obliges the US to intervene on Japan's behalf if it is attacked by a third country.
"That is the position of the United States with respect to those islands," he said, referring to them by their Japanese name.
Kerry refrained from weighing in, however, on the issue of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, a move that infuriated both Beijing and Seoul and drew a rebuke from Washington.
While there is "legitimate concern about the past", Kerry said, there are also "issues of enormous current pressing concern that deal with security that are relevant in terms of today, not in terms of history".
"And it is vital for us to be able to continue to stay focused on the high stakes, in terms of everybody's lives right now, of those issues," he said.
Kerry stressed in Seoul that the US would never accept the North as a nuclear state and that it would not be drawn into "talks for talks' sake" with Pyongyang.
"We've been through that exercise previously, we want to know that this is real," he said, adding North Korea had to take "meaningful action" towards denuclearisation before a dialogue could begin.
Chinese state media, however, remained focused on the historical issues at play, with the China Daily newspaper on Friday running an editorial cartoon depicting Abe offering a Valentine's Day rose to a dead kamikaze pilot's skull.
The cartoon appeared to be a reference to a recent bid by the Japanese city of Minami-Kyushu for World War II kamikaze fighters' farewell letters to be included in a UNESCO world heritage register, a move that drew swift condemnation from Beijing and Seoul.
The Global Times newspaper, which is close to China's ruling Communist Party, wrote in an editorial Friday that while Kerry's visit to Beijing is expected to be a "smooth" one, the US' promised "pivot" to Asia "has triggered pressure on China's strategies".
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