As Washington awaits Vice President Xi Jinping, spokesman points to rifts on Syria and Iran. (Lintao Zhang/AP)

On the eve of an official visit to Washington by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the country’s vice foreign minister in charge of U.S. affairs said the two countries suffer from a “trust deficit” that the trip might help resolve.

“The level of mutual trust between China and the U.S. is lagging behind what is required for further development of our bilateral relations,” Cui Tiankai said Thursday.

“Vice President Xi’s visit will present a very important opportunity to enhance” that trust, he said.

Washington and Beijing have differed in the past few weeks on a range of global issues, including sanctions on Iranian oil exports, dealing with North Korea, territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea and, most recently, China’s decision to join Russia in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Thirteen other Security Council members voted in favor of the Syrian resolution, which also had the backing of the European Union and the Arab League. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called the veto “disgusting and shameful.”

At the Thursday briefing, Cui repeatedly defended China’s veto — a rare move for the country, which has traditionally abstained on controversial votes. He said China reserved the right to use its veto more often in the future, noting growing concern in Beijing that the United States and its allies might use Security Council resolutions to justify military interventions to overthrow governments.

“China holds that in international relations, one should not wantonly resort to the use of force for purposes of regime change,” Cui said. He called it a “principled position” that was particularly important for developing countries.

“We did not do it to provoke anyone,” he said. “But maybe some countries that tend to use force or tend to interfere in the affairs of other countries might be angered by China’s attitude. We can’t help that.”

Responding to Rice’s heated comments, Cui said, “To trade accusations against each other will not help solve this issue.”

China abstained last March, along with four other Security Council members, on a resolution setting up a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizing “all necessary means” to protect civilians — only to see NATO warplanes launch a wave of airstrikes that helped rebel forces oust Moammar Gaddafi.

Cui said China has always been “cautious and responsible” in using its veto power as one of the Security Council’s five permanent veto-wielding members. “We’ve only used our veto power on eight occasions,” Cui said. “If someone should be criticized for using the veto power, then the U.S. should be blamed for using its veto power the most.”

Cui stressed that the United States and China have room to cooperate on a range of bilateral and global issues as part of a “cooperative partnership” agreed to between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao at a meeting in Washington a year ago.

On Syria, Cui said that “both of us want to see regional peace and stability there.” On the Iranian nuclear issue, he said Washington and Beijing have had “a lot of consultation and coordination,” even though the two sides still disagree on the issue of sanctions. He also said both the United States and China were committed to resolving the crisis on the Korean Peninsula through an eventual return to the six-party talks.

“Of course, on some issues, it is only natural for our two countries to see things differently,” Cui said. “We have to first accommodate each other’s concerns.

“What is critical is not to resort to unilateralism,” he added, “not to impose one’s view on the other.”

Cui was also asked whether human rights issues would be on the agenda for Xi’s U.S. visit, particularly as China engages in a broad security clampdown in the country’s Tibetan regions following a spate of self-immolations there.

“The Chinese government has the responsibility to protect people’s safety and property, and to curb violent activities,” Cui said. “That is the most important human right for the people.”