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Washington (AFP) – Vice President Joe Biden will head to China next month for the highest-ranking U.S. visit since the rising Asian power’s leadership transition, the White House said.

Biden will also visit U.S. allies Japan and South Korea during the trip over the first week of December, the vice president’s office said.

The trip likely aims to demonstrate a sustained interest in Asia, which President Barack Obama has identified as a key priority for the United States.

Obama canceled a visit planned in October to four Asian nations, including two regional summits, after lawmakers for the rival Republican Party forced a shutdown of the government to stop reforms to the U.S. health care system.

Biden last visited Asia in August 2011, when he spent hours with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the then the vice president, in hopes of getting to understand the man likely to lead China for a decade.

Xi formally took over as president in March at a time of feuding between the United States and China on issues from copyright infringement to regional territorial disputes.

Japan has been particularly nervous about China’s rise and has highlighted its alliance with the United States in an increasingly bitter row with Beijing over a set of islands.

The White House, in the statement, said Biden would also discuss with Japan the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a potentially sweeping U.S.-led free trade pact whose negotiations Tokyo recently entered.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has had warm relations with the United States since taking office this year.

The two countries have been seeking to coordinate their next steps in handling an often bellicose North Korea.

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