China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi to make first official visit to Trump's America
Relations have been strained by Trump's criticism of China's handling of North Korea and its trade policies
Beijing: China's top diplomat will visit the United States this week, as the two sides work to arrange a meeting between their presidents after a rocky start to the relationship under the administration of Donald Trump.
State Councillor Yang Jiechi will meet senior American officials on Monday and Tuesday to discuss "bilateral ties and issues of common concern", the foreign ministry announced late Sunday.
Relations have been strained by Trump's criticism of China's handling of North Korea and its trade policies as well as his questioning of Washington's longstanding "One China" policy.
Yang, who outranks the foreign minister, will be the first senior Chinese official to visit the US since Trump took office.
One of his key duties will be making arrangements for a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University's Centre of American Studies, told AFP.
Yang will also seek to connect with Trump's diplomatic team and meet key figures such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, he added.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the two sides have been in "close contact and communication" about a possible meeting between the heads of state, but declined to give details of Yang's schedule or the message he was carrying to Washington.
"He will exchange views on bilateral relations and issues of mutual interest with senior officials from the US," Geng said.
Before Xi and Trump can meet, the two countries must address some of the contentious issues thrust into the spotlight since Trump's election, said Tao Wenzhao, an expert on Sino-US relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
They "will carry out a wide-ranging discussion on various global problems and form a consensus", he told AFP. "On that basis, the two countries' leaders can meet."
But the gap on many issues remains large, from China's massive trade surplus with the US to friction over its building of military facilities on artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
The relationship got off to a rocky start after Trump accepted a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, angering China by breaking decades of diplomatic precedent.
He upped the ante by suggesting he might recognise Taiwan's sovereignty unless China was willing to negotiate more favourable trade terms with the US -- a non-starter for Beijing, which sees the self-ruled island as part of its own territory awaiting reunification.
Seeking to minimise the fallout, Tillerson met China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier this month at a G20 foreign ministers' meeting in Germany. The Secretary of State urged Beijing to help rein in North Korea after its series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
Tensions between the two countries have eased somewhat since Trump reaffirmed Washington's "One China" policy in a conciliatory phone call with Xi earlier this month.
Since then, Beijing has stepped up its pressure on Pyongyang by announcing a ban on imports of coal from North Korea — previously an economic lifeline for the isolated country.
On the presidential campaign trail last year, Trump regularly accused China of stealing American jobs and running a massive and unfairly won trade surplus with the US, vowing to reverse it by whatever means necessary.
CASS's Tao said he was "optimistic" the relationship would soon be back on track.
"Trump is a very smart person," he said. "He knows that the Sino-US relationship is in America's national interest."
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The meet between the two leaders comes as rising tensions over Beijing's aggressive posture toward Taiwan and Washington's decision to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia