HANOI: Chinese President Xi Jinping heads to Hanoi on Thursday for a visit that has drawn the ire of Vietnamese nationalists at a time of bubbling conflict over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The communist neighbours have long celebrated their political and economic ties but in recent years tensions have flared in a decades-old feud over island chains in the contested waters.
Ahead of Xi’s visit — the first by a Chinese president to Vietnam in 10 years — anti-China activists have staged small but rare protests in the heart of the Vietnamese capital and southern Ho Chi Minh City.
“Protesting Xi Jinping’s visit”, said one of the banners held aloft by some dozen demonstrators Tuesday as they marched through downtown Hanoi, flanked but not arrested by at least triple the number of police.
Rallies are rare in authoritarian Vietnam, but the ruling regime has increasingly tolerated low levels of dissent against its main ally China.
Relations between the two nations plummeted to their lowest point in decades in May 2014 when Beijing moved an oil rig into the contested South China Sea waters.
The anti-China riots which ensued targeted foreign-invested factories and saw the Asian giant evacuate thousands of its nationals as at least three Chinese were killed.
Xi’s visit is being viewed by some Vietnamese 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 Duong Danh Dy, a former Vietnamese diplomat in Beijing.
Xi, who is due to land in Hanoi at around 0500 GMT, will meet ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during his two-day trip.
Last week Chinese officials told reporters in Beijing that the territorial dispute would be discussed as well as cooperation on trade, education and infrastructure.
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.
Japan and China are also locked in a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
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 US 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 not Beijing. The TPP is viewed by some as a counterbalance to growing Chinese economic clout.
Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani will also be in Vietnam during Xi’s trip. He is due to tour a strategic naval base on Thursday in central Vietnam, according to Vietnamese state media.
Despite their political closeness, Vietnam and China fought a brief but bloody war in 1979 triggered by Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia.