Channel NewsAsia

Top Beijing diplomat in Hanoi for key South China Sea talks

Beijing's top foreign policy official began talks with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi Wednesday over China's stationing of an oil rig in disputed waters, which sent the two countries' relations plunging to their lowest point in decades.

HANOI: Beijing's top foreign policy official began talks with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi Wednesday over China's stationing of an oil rig in disputed waters, which sent the two countries' relations plunging to their lowest point in decades.

State Councillor Yang Jiechi met Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh for the first high-level talks between the communist neighbours since early May, when vessels from both sides collided near the deep-sea rig prompting deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam and an evacuation of nationals by Beijing.

"We welcome the visit of our Chinese comrade to Vietnam to discuss issues between the two countries," Pham Binh Minh, who is also a deputy prime minister, told reporters before the meeting early Wednesday.

"The desire of the two countries is to solve the problem in the East Sea," Minh added, using the Vietnamese name for the South China Sea.

Yang Jiechi will also meet with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and leading party officials in Hanoi.

The two sides have spent the last month trading accusations in the increasingly heated maritime territorial dispute, with each side claiming the other has engaged in aggressive behaviour against its ships, including by ramming them.

It marked a nadir in relations since a border war in 1979.

"Relations between China and Vietnam are currently experiencing difficulties," Yang Jiechi told reporters before the talks.

"This time, I have come to Vietnam to discuss frankly with Comrade Pham Binh Minh the issue of the South China Sea," he added.

Yang was previously China's foreign minister. But he moved up to the State Council, the country's cabinet, last year, making him more powerful than the current foreign minister.

Vietnam's communist leaders have struggled to balance strong domestic opposition to China's unilateral moves in the South China Sea with their traditionally friendly ties with a fellow communist country.

Anti-Chinese riots sparked by Beijing's dispatch of the rig claimed three Chinese lives in Vietnam last month, according to Hanoi. Beijing says four Chinese citizens died.

Hanoi has since moved to muzzle public protest as it seeks to reassure nervous foreign investors that the country is a safe place in which to do business.

The US called the deployment of the rig in contested waters "provocative" and Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has announced Hanoi is considering legal action against China.

Hanoi-based diplomats say privately it is unlikely Vietnam would follow through on this threat as any legal action could lead to economic retaliation by Beijing, which would hit Vietnam hard.

China is Vietnam's largest trading partner and the standoff over the rig has already affected some local companies, which rely on cheap Chinese imports, forcing them to diversify their supply chains.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia