HANOI, Vietnam – Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Vietnam on Thursday comes as the two communist countries seek to mend ties strained over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Bilateral relations plunged to their lowest point in years following China's parking of a giant oil rig near the Paracel islands in an area Vietnam claims is within its exclusive economic zone. The incident sparked deadly anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam.
The two countries have since then been trying to repair ties with high-level contacts and exchanges of visits including the visit to China by Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in April.
Vietnamese state media quoted Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh as saying that leaders will discuss strengthening of relations as well as differences including the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that more than 10 cooperation agreements covering party-to-party relations, trade, investment and infrastructure are expected to be signed.
But analysts say Xi's two-day visit is unlikely to mark much progress in addressing territorial tensions.
"I personally think it's difficult to resolve the issue of territorial disputes when Vietnam and China still maintain their positions," said Duong Danh Dy, former Vietnamese consul general in Guangzhou, in southern China.
Xinhua said in an editorial Thursday said that the settlement of their territorial disputes depend on "the two neighbors' will and ability to properly manage their differences," and that they should not allow the outside world to interfere.
Witnesses said a group of about 30 people staged a brief protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi Thursday morning before being taken away in buses by authorities.
Jonathan London, a professor at Hong Kong's City University, said it's in Vietnam's interests to have good relations with its big neighbor to the North and that Vietnam could take the opportunity of the visit to send a message to the Chinese president.
China claims almost all South China Sea with its nine-dash line. Vietnam and China both claim the Paracel islands, which are under Chinese occupation after it ousted the U.S.-backed Saigon government in 1974, one year before the end of the Vietnam War.
The two countries along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim all or parts of the Spratlys islands, which lies on one of the world's busiest sea lanes and are believed to be rich in oil and gas and fish resources.
China's massive land reclamation over the past 18 months in the South China Sea has rattled countries in the region and caused concerns in the United States, which supports the freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
Despite the territorial disputes, China is Vietnam's largest trading partner with the two-way trade volume reaching $58 billion last year.
Xi is scheduled to travel on to Singapore on Friday where he is expected to meet with Taiwan's leader, the first such meeting since Taiwan split from mainland China since 1949.