HANOI • Chinese President Xi Jinping said yesterday that he hoped for a "higher level" partnership with Vietnam on a visit that has angered Vietnamese nationalists at a time of bubbling conflict over the South China Sea.
The communist neighbours have long celebrated their political and economic ties but in recent years tensions have flared over a decades-old feud about island chains in the contested waters.
China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan as well as Vietnam.
On arriving in Hanoi yesterday, Mr Xi said he hoped the visit would "consolidate (their) traditional friendship" and lift Sino-Vietnamese "cooperation to a higher level" in a statement released in Vietnamese. China accounted for one-fifth of Vietnam's trade last year, up from 12 per cent in 2005.
The Chinese leader was welcomed with a 21-gun salute before being greeted by ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. On his two-day trip, Mr Xi is also scheduled to meet Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Mr Xi will address Vietnam's National Assembly today. He is expected to highlight economic and ideological links and avoid discussion of disagreements.
Hours before Mr Xi arrived in Hanoi - on the first visit by a Chinese president to Vietnam in 10 years - a very different scene played out in small but rare protests on the streets of the capital and southern Ho Chi Minh City.
"Protesting Xi Jinping's visit", said one of the placards held aloft by about a dozen demonstrators in the capital, as others carried pictures of Mr Xi marked with an "X" across his image.
But unlike protests earlier this week, they were quickly disbanded, witnesses told Agence France- Presse.
Relations between Vietnam and China plummeted to their lowest point in decades in May last year when Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi in the South China Sea.
The anti-China riots that ensued targeted foreign-invested factories and saw the Asian giant evacuate thousands of its nationals after at least three Chinese were killed.
Mr Xi's visit has been viewed by observers as an attempt to improve relations after that episode.
He "aims to calm down Vietnam and other countries over the recent construction by China" in the South China Sea, said Mr Duong Danh Dy, a former Vietnamese diplomat in Beijing.
In recent months, Vietnam has been trying to strengthen bonds with other nations to counter China's growing regional prowess.
Communist Party general secretary Trong was received by United States President Barack Obama in July, the first party chief to visit the country and the White House.
Vietnam is also party to the recently sealed Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world's largest free trade deal between 12 nations, including the US and Japan, but notably not Beijing. The TPP is viewed by some as a counterbalance to growing Chinese economic clout.
"Xi wants to show Vietnam that its relationship with China is more important than that of any other country, especially the US," said Professor Emeritus Nguyen Manh Hung at George Mason University in Virginia.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG