BEIJING (AP) — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waxed glowingly about China's vice president Thursday at the start of a five-day visit that will give them some serious bonding time.
Xi Jinping, the country's expected future leader, seemed to return the warm feelings, with both men emphasizing the importance of personal ties in international relations and the need for their countries to work together on the world's problems.
Thursday's meetings between the two, followed by a formal banquet, began to reveal a bit about the personal style of a man who has so far given little indication of how he will rule the world's most populous country, the No. 2 economy and a powerful potential rival to the U.S.
In his opening remarks at the Great Hall of the People, Biden said he was impressed with Xi's "sweep and knowledge of history, impressed with your openness and candor," adding he viewed foreign policy as more than just formal visits.
"It's establishing personal relationships and trust. And it is my fond hope that our personal relationship will continue to grow."
After the meeting Thursday and an honor guard welcome — where Biden looked more at ease than the slightly wooden Xi — they will chair a round-table meeting Friday with business leaders to look at ways to enhance cooperation.
They then travel together to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, which was hit badly by a massive earthquake in 2008. Biden will speak to high school students Sunday and visit quake reconstruction projects.
China's massive leap in economic power, and its growing military might, have led both sides to call for better communication to solve issues that could flare into bigger problems, and to cooperate on the economic crisis and other matters, such as environmental problems.
Biden's trip and a reciprocal visit to the United States by Xi are important to bilateral ties, said Ding Xueliang, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology.
"It's a good thing for U.S.-China relations. It makes it more like a family affair. There are so many misunderstandings ... so it is very productive for both sides to talk more and go see for themselves," Ding said.
Almost four years after his elevation to the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the 57-year-old Xi has brought few surprises, confirming him as a pragmatic, composed, and disciplined party professional well versed in the ways of Chinese leadership.
In keeping with the traditional role of the heir-apparent, Xi has scrupulously promoted President Hu Jintao's trademark policies calling for balanced development and spreading China's wealth more broadly to ease a growing rich-poor gap and the protests and social tensions that it has ignited.
As the son of a former vice premier, Xi, who trained as a chemical engineer at China's elite Tsinghua University, is identified as a member of the "princelings" faction whose relatives were among the founding fathers of the communist state. Unlike many of them, however, he exudes a down-to-earth quality without the haughtiness or sense of entitlement of many others in that group.
As with many princelings, Xi suffered hardship during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Mao Zedong turned against Xi's father, but once the elder Xi was restored to power, the son rejected a cushy job in Beijing in favor of a career in the provinces.
That eventually brought him to high office as the party boss of two of China's most dynamic provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang.
During those years, he became known as an able administrator and problem solver, someone who nurtured innovation and private industry while avoiding controversy. That reputation helped him weather a massive smuggling and corruption scandal during his time in Fujian, and eventually saw him elevated to the top job in Shanghai after his predecessor was brought down by graft.
While Xi as leader is expected to continue Hu's mix of economic pragmatism and strong party control, he's also taken care to burnish his nationalist credentials. In Mexico, he told Chinese students that foreign critics of the country's human rights record should butt out. Last year, he delivered a commemorative address defending entry into the Korean War as a justified response to Western aggression.
Although the secretive Communist Party has not formally announced it, Xi is expected to take over the top party job from Hu Jintao in late 2012, followed by assuming the title of president in the spring of 2013.
Hu, like Xi now, was a cipher before coming to power with widely diverging guesses on his political plans. He also made a trip to the U.S. the year before his elevation and gave away little. In the last decade he has led China in a more assertive direction.
During Thursday's meetings, Xi showed himself to posses a formidable intellect and easy confidence, conveying a strategic approach with no need to refer to notes, said a senior U.S. administration official speaking on routine condition of anonymity.
Much of the focus was on economic issues, with both vice presidents saying their countries had to work closely to solve financial problems.
"I am absolutely confident that the economic stability of the world rests in no small part on cooperation between the United States and China," Biden said. "It is the key, in my view, to global stability."
Xi said the financial crisis meant the countries had to work closely together.
"I too believe that under the new situation, China and the United States have ever more extensive, common interests, and we shoulder ever more common responsibilities," he said.
AP reporter Elaine Kurtenbach in Shanghai and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.