Kerry met Xi at the Great Hall of the People and was due to meet Premier Li Keqiang, Foreign Minister Wang Yia and top Chinese officials.

Kerry's trip comes at a critical juncture with raging tension between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, adding to the South China Sea disputes.

During Kerry's visit, the two sides were expected to discuss bilateral ties and issues of common concern, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a media briefing on Thursday.

Kerry will "relay the message that the US is committed to pursuing a positive, cooperative, comprehensive relationship and welcomes the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China that plays a positive role in world affairs," US State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said in a statement.

His visit comes in the wake of a deepening row between China and Japan, which is a close ally of Washington.

Ahead of his visit to China, Kerry on Thursday night reiterated that the East China Sea islands, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan, fall under the security treaty that obliges the US to intervene on Japan's behalf if it is attacked.

"That is the position of United States with respect to those islands," he said.

Kerry, however, refrained from making a direct reference to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, saying while there is "legitimate concern about the past", 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.

Kerry's discussions are expected to feature the South China Sea disputes as well.

The US has backed Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei's objections to China's claims over the South China Sea and has been pushing Beijing to address their objections.

For its part China is concerned over US' pivot to Asia under which Washington plans to deploy over 60 percent of its maritime military assets in the region, which Beijing sees as a threat to its security.

The two sides also would focus their talks on issues affecting the steady improvement of bilateral ties. Kerry arrived here from South Korea and is on his fifth trip to Asia since he took office. His itinerary includes visits to South Korea, China, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.


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