While Google chairman Eric Schmidt is enjoying a much-criticised visit to North Korea, Apple is coordinating an Asia visit of its own, after its CEO Tim Cook met with China’s Minister of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) Miao Xu to discuss the state of the IT and communication industries in the country.

A regular visitor to China, Cook appears to be on a very official visit, not only meeting senior government figures but also with the US Ambassador to China Gary Locke, where the Apple chief is reported to have reiterated the importance of its retail stores in the country.

According to an (unofficial) tweet by Jim Sciutto, the Chief of Staff at the US embassy in Beijing, Cook told Ambassador Locke that some Apple stores in China were already “the busiest in the world,” despite only operating eight official outlets in the country.

 Apple CEO Tim Cook meets high level officials, US ambassador on visit to China

Reasons for Cook’s visit are unknown, but if recent reports that Apple’s supply chain will be required to work through the Chinese New Year in order to keep up with demand for the iPhone 5 and iPad mini are true, Cook’s presence may well be timed to ease pressure ahead of a holiday period where migrant and factory workers often return home to families.

With both the iPhone 5 and iPad mini recently going on sale in the country (the smartphone seeing 2 million sales in its opening weekend), the world’s biggest mobile operator — China Mobile — has still not agreed a distribution deal with Apple to offer devices to its subscribers. Talks have been ongoing since 2007, but the two companies have been unable to agree on compensation and other agreements.

A visit to China Mobile may well be on the table, as would a visit to a local retail store or a local factory — all things he did during his last visit.

Interestingly, Nokia’s global vice president Ou Kaisha met with MIIT Vice Minister Liu Lihua just a day before, discussing the Finnish smartphone maker’s presence in China.

Serving as Apple’s COO before his appointment as CEO, Tim Cook built his reputation on agreeing supply agreements with partners, particularly in Asia, as the company looked to ramp up production and reduce costs.

China remains one of Apple’s most important markets both for retail and supply, accounting for 15 percent of Apple’s fiscal revenue in 2012, which was evidenced when Cook became the first Apple CEO to visit the country early last year.

H/T: Bill Bishop

Image Credit: MIIT | Featured Credit: deerkoski/Flickr