Relations between China and the US look far from rosy. Tit-for-tat annual human rights reports in recent weeks that were as accusatory and acrimonious as ever added to simmering claims of cyberhacking and disagreement over Syria, Iran and trade. Those are the latest wrinkles to the big-picture backdrop of decades of difficult ties that have in the past two years been exacerbated by rising mutual concerns over strategic intentions. With so much to be worked on, North Korea's overshadowing of John Kerry's first trip to Beijing as US Secretary of State and Martin Dempsey's as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff would seem to have been unfortunate.
But the North's latest round of sabre-rattling was anything but an impediment; rather than detracting from the important matter of building bridges, it benefited the process. China and the US need, above all else, to better know and understand one another. There is no more constructive way to do that than through dialogue. The officials' trips, whether to discuss threats on the Korean peninsula or other issues of shared concern, helped strengthen foundations for improved ties.
Restoring calm to the Korean peninsula is a priority for Beijing and Washington. By working together, there is every chance that their objective can be attained. Kerry, with a firm grasp of foreign policy, has the right background. In him, there is hopefully a good chance of bringing back the balance to Sino-US relations that drifted under his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
Under Clinton came US President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia", explained as necessary for American development. Its military dimension is troubling for China, particularly at a time of heightened tension over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. Nor is China explaining well its military modernisation to the world. At meetings of Chinese and American officials, both sides have pledged to improve ties, but there is no denying the growing suspicion and strategic distrust.
President Xi Jinping and Kerry expressed the right sentiments after their meeting. Apart from pledging a joint effort on North Korea, working groups were set up on cybercrime and climate change. Both nations are economically and politically interdependent; each has a stake in the other's success. With more than 90 intergovernment dialogues, the groundwork is already in place. North Korea will help them move closer, but it is only another stage of a process that needs ever-more talking and co-operation.