Obama's China visit will be 'important milestone': Rice

Beijing (AFP) - President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to China will be an "important milestone" in relations, the top White House national security aide said Monday at a meeting with officials in Beijing.

The trip by National Security Advisor Susan Rice comes at a turbulent time in US foreign policy and some three weeks after Washington accused a Chinese fighter jet of buzzing one of its surveillance planes.

It also comes ahead of a one-on-one summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping that is being planned to coincide with the US leader's visit to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November.

Obama "views this visit as an important milestone in the development of our important relationship", Rice said at the opening of her meeting with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai.

"The president asked me to travel here -- even as there are many other issues on our shared global agenda -- because of the priority he attaches to US-China relations," she added.

Yang said he looked forward to discussing "China's core interests and major concerns", as well as working to "constructively manage our differences on sensitive issues to ensure that the US-China relationship will continue to move forward".

"The current international environment has further highlighted the strategic significance for China and the United States to jointly build a new model of major country relations," he added, in a nod to a theme that Xi has promoted since his summit with Obama in California in June 2013.

Rice's trip -- which is also expected to include meetings with Xi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi -- is her first to China as national security advisor.

It is intended as a signal that -- despite a new conflict in the Middle East against the Islamic State and a showdown with Russia over Ukraine -- Washington remains committed to its policy of reorienting US power to Asia.

- 'Undesirable accidents' -

Rice is in Beijing after China told the US to end air and naval surveillance near its borders, which it said was damaging relations between the Pacific powers and could lead to "undesirable accidents".

The latest incident took place last month, when a Chinese fighter jet flew less than 30 feet (nine metres) away from a US surveillance aircraft near China's Hainan island. The episode recalled a standoff over a downed US spy plane in the same area in 2001.

Washington and Beijing have long disagreed over aviation and maritime rights in the South China Sea, with the Americans insisting the area is part of international waters and airspace.

China argues it is part of the country's "exclusive economic zone."

Rice may also take the opportunity during her visit to restate Washington's support for democracy in Hong Kong, after Beijing bristled at its backing for protesters who are demanding a say in selecting candidates for the semi-autonomous territory's next leader.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under an agreement that allows civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest.

But the standing committee of China's National People's Congress said last week that candidates for Hong Kong's leadership election in 2017 must be chosen by a pro-Beijing committee -- a move that has enraged pro-democracy activists and drawn condemnation from international rights groups.

China has blasted what it considers any outside interference in its "domestic affairs", with foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang warning on Friday that "no foreign country has the right to make irresponsible remarks or interfere in any form".