HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam sent a high-ranking delegation of Communist Party officials and Cabinet ministers to China on Tuesday as the countries seek to mend relations strained by the giant northern neighbor's deployment of an oil rig last year in disputed waters.
The four-day trip was led by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang, the party said in a brief statement on its website.
The Communist Party's Nhan Dan newspaper said in a front page editorial that Trong's visit "creates favorable conditions" to resolve problems between the countries, although it did not mention the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Relations between the communist neighbors plunged to its lowest point in years after China parked a giant oil right last May near the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam.
The incident triggered a near breakdown in ties and sparked the risk of a naval standoff as well as widespread anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam that turned violent and left at least four Chinese nationals dead.
After two months of drilling, China withdrew the billion-dollar rig last July but made clear it was doing so because it had completed its work, not because of the criticism of its actions. China's foreign ministry also cited the typhoon season as a reason for moving the rig.
The rig's deployment was widely seen as part of a strategy by China to gradually stake out its claims in the South China Sea, all or part of which are also claimed Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
The spat exposed Vietnam's lack of options when dealing with its giant neighbor. Hanoi's workings are shrouded in secrecy, but it has long been assumed that the Communist Party is split between a faction that favors a tough line against Beijing — and consequentially stronger ties with the United States and its allies — and those who believe a quiet compromise can be reached with their ideological allies in China.
Trong is also expected to visit the United States as Vietnam seeks closer ties with other countries in the face of China's growing territorial assertiveness. US Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius has said Trong will visit Washington, but no official date has been given.
Vietnam has strongly protested China's building up of reefs and atolls in the South China Sea, saying that violates Vietnam's sovereignty and threatens regional peace and international maritime navigation.
Tran Cong Truc, former chairman of the government Borders Committee, said he hoped the visit to China can yield a breakthrough on the territorial disputes.
"The fact that they are meeting, regardless of the result, is a good sign and should be welcomed," he said, adding Vietnam has no intention of sparring with its powerful neighbor.