HANOI • China's top diplomat met Vietnam's leadership yesterday during a scheduled visit aimed at strengthening historically close relations at a time when ties are strained by squabbles over the South China Sea.
The trip by State Councillor Yang Jiechi comes amid a Chinese public relations blitz to try to discredit a looming verdict by an international tribunal, which could aggravate tensions if it undermines Beijing's vast claims to waters extending far into South-east Asia.
Mr Yang, who outranks China's foreign minister, and Vietnam's Foreign Minister and Deputy Premier Pham Binh Minh expressed a need to implement joint agreements on preventing rows from getting out of hand, said Vietnam's foreign ministry. That included "controlling conflicts well, boosting negotiation mechanisms... and finding basic and long-term solutions that both sides can accept through peaceful exchanges and negotiations".
China's state news agency Xinhua quoted Mr Yang as saying both countries must "appropriately handle relevant disputes and problems". He later met Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang and its Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.
His visit comes as the region braces itself for the verdict in the case brought by the Philippines in 2013 to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague seeking clarification of parts of United Nations maritime law.
China has said 47 countries support its refusal to recognise the case. Its diplomats have written editorials in regional newspapers denouncing what has been seen widely as a bold move by Manila, with scope for repercussions. Incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said he would not discuss it until a ruling was made.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) worth of trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
Experts had said it was unlikely Mr Yang would seek a sympathetic ear from Vietnam, which has trust issues with China and has grown closer to the Philippines.