BEIJING (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, amid increasingly tense territorial rows between Beijing and Washington's security allies Tokyo and Manila.
Kerry started his Valentine's Day visit with a meeting with Xi at the Great Hall of the People, and was due to meet other officials including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi later.
Kerry'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.
Fears of an aerial or maritime clash over the islands have spiked following Beijing's recent declaration of an air defence identification zone in the skies above the East China Sea.
Patrol boats from both countries 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.
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.
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".
"Communication will, of course, play a part in prompting Washington to take a moderate stance toward China, but what's more significant is that we must make more friends with a more proactive foreign policy," the paper wrote.
The issue of North Korea is also high on the agenda for Kerry's visit.
Washington hopes to secure Beijing's help in prodding its belligerent ally to take meaningful action towards denuclearisation.