As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with China's highest-ranking leaders in Beijing on a trust-building mission, bilateral tensions flared instead in an unlikely venue: the basketball court.
Players traded kicks and punches, with even spectators joining in the melee, throwing water bottles and even a chair at brawling players who ended the match on a 64:64 tie less than 10 minutes before time.
The "friendship" game between Washington's Georgetown Hoyas and the Chinese team broke down in fisticuffs just a day after Biden watched the Hoyas play a different Chinese side.
State media remained silent on the incident and postings and photos of the brawl on microblogs were quickly deleted.
Sino-U.S. tensions have escalated in recent months over a series of disputes and disagreements, China's growing military muscle, human rights abuses, and controversial economic policies.
Debt crisis concerns
Biden's six-day visit as the guest of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is focused on improving U.S.-Chinese economic relations in the wake of the U.S. debt crisis and loss of Washington's triple A credit rating for sovereign debt.
China is currently the biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt, with a position worth U.S. $1.2 trillion, though large-scale sell-offs are an unlikely choice for Beijing.
However, Chinese official media commentators have hit out at Washington over the debt crisis, saying the U.S. suffers from an "addiction to debt."
Biden met Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing on Friday, telling him: "Obama asked me to come to Beijing to meet you and reaffirm our absolute commitment to developing a strong, enduring and positive relationship with China and to reaffirm our engagement with the world in a much bigger way."
Their meeting following an earlier meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao.
Biden will also visit southwestern China's Sichuan province and hold meetings with business leaders.
Seton Hall University professor Yang Liyu said the two sides appeared to be treading softly around the thorny issues of arms sales to Taiwan, bilateral trade, and human rights.
"Both sides are really hoping to strengthen cooperation," Yang said. "Also, the U.S. side wants to get to know Xi Jinping."
Xi, who is widely tipped to succeed Hu as president following a leadership succession scheduled for the Party Congress next year, earlier on Friday expressed confidence in the battered US economy.
Speaking at a roundtable of American and Chinese business leaders hosted by Biden, Xi said China is confident the U.S. can meet its challenges.
"The U.S. economy is highly resilient and has a strong capacity of self-repair," Xi said. "We believe that the U.S. economy will achieve even better development as it rises to challenges."
He also promised a soft landing for China's economy, calling on the U.S. to lift trade restrictions on Chinese goods and companies.
Taiwan arms sales curbed?
Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University, said the U.S. is also hoping to secure concessions from Beijing.
"The yuan is now beginning to appreciate, which will have a beneficial effect on the health of the U.S. economy at a basic level," Shen said.
"Both sides are keen to broaden the scope of [economic] cooperation [during] Biden's visit," he said.
Yang said Washington has effectively curbed arms sales to Beijing's rival, Taiwan.
"According to the latest reports, the U.S. has basically decided not to sell F16C/D fighter aircraft to Taiwan," Yang said, adding that a recent congressional motion calling for the sale to go ahead had no legal power.
"This motion has satisfied the demands of some Taiwanese, and has dealt with the matter in Congress, and it won't irritate Beijing too much; not to the extent that it damages bilateral relations," he said.
U.S. team invites Chinese
Meanwhile, the Georgetown Hoyas were escorted to the airport Friday on the next leg of their tour, shaking hands with the Shanghai Bayi Rockets team members after their brawl.
Vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai told reporters that Chinese coaches and players saw the American team off at the airport and exchanged souvenirs with them on Friday.
"The American team also invited the Chinese team to visit the U.S. and play games there," he said.
Biden's office has declined to comment on the incident.
Biden himself garnered an appreciative reaction from Chinese netizens after he visited a cheap noodle restaurant in Beijing for a local favorite: noodles with soybean paste.
Biden and his staff ate lunch at the Yao Ji Stewed Liver restaurant in central Beijing on Thursday, according to a tweet posted by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
'Product of the system'
State-run China Central Television anchor Rui Chengang responded: "American politicians are good at molding their public image. This is a product of the system."
The Sina Weibo update was forwarded more than 47,000 times and generated 20,000 comments.
Biden and his staff ordered five bowls of noodles with soybean paste, ten pork buns, some side dishes, and cola for a total cost of 79 yuan (U.S. $12).
Biden paid the bill with a 100-yuan note and offered the remainder as a tip, "in line with American custom," the tweet said.
But one microblogger commented wryly, in a post translated by the official Xinhua news agency: "Mr. Vice President, I know you didn't come here for noodles, so never mind the tip. But don't blow our 1.165 trillion U.S. dollars in Treasury assets. There are 1.3 billion Chinese keeping an eye on this."
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, caused a stir among netizens after he was pictured wearing a backpack and buying his own coffee at a Seattle airport, drawing favorable comparisons with the decadent and high-spending lifestyle of even low-ranking Chinese officials.
Reported by Shi Shan and He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.