WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is gearing up for next week's visit by Chinese vice president Xi Jinping, who is expected to become the country's next leader, as a once-in-a-decade chance to set the tone in relations between Washington and Beijing.
But President Barack Obama starts the new relationship in a difficult setting, in the midst of a heated presidential contest that is exerting pressure on the president to accentuate a tough stance toward the Chinese. The White House has muffled expectations of major breakthroughs on any significant issue.
Nonetheless, the administration said it expects to zero in on some of the most contentious issues between the two countries when Obama and Xi meet behind closed doors. The visit takes place amid a rolling boil of political crises across the Middle East and Asia, from a looming civil war in Syria to the implications of the leadership succession in North Korea.
In the meeting with Obama, as well as in sessions with Vice President Joe Biden and others, US officials hope to get a read on how China's heir apparent views everything from sanctions against Iran to currency and trade issues.
Particularly telling will be a session planned for Wednesday with the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), a leader of Obama's opposition, which has relentlessly criticized China for its human-rights policies and its role in international crises.
Moving to deflect political criticism and show a stern side, the White House this week hosted a visit by advocates of expanded human rights in China, and called for improvements from Beijing.
Later, Biden, while traveling in Ohio, boasted that the US economy remained larger than China's.
Chinese leaders also have issued tough talk, with a senior official saying in Beijing on Thursday that Xi would address a US-China "trust deficit."
Describing administration plans Friday for the trip, Anthony Blinken, Biden's national-security adviser said, "This visit is really an investment in the future of the US-China relationship."
In addition to high-level engagements in Washington, Xi's itinerary also includes stops later next week in Iowa and California. China observers say the US tour offers Xi a chance to demonstrate statesmanship and raise his profile at home.
For Obama, the time spent with Xi will offer a new view of China. Since taking office, Obama has had 10 face-to-face meetings with Chinese president Hu Jintao, but this will be his first meeting with Xi.