BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Vice President Xi Jinping, likely to take over as top leader late next year, will visit Vietnam for three days from Tuesday in what could be a test of how he handles festering territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also said on Friday Xi will then make a three-day visit to Thailand, according to the ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn). The brief announcement gave no details about what issues or agreements Xi will take up in either country.
The visit to Vietnam will, however, expose Xi to one of Beijing's trickiest regional relations.
Xi, 58, has received a series of promotions that show he is almost certain to succeed Hu Jintao as Chinese Communist Party chief late next year, and then as state president in early 2013.
China and Vietnam share a fraternal history of communist struggle against foreign occupiers, but also a history of tensions over territorial claims and Vietnamese wariness of its much larger neighbor. They were briefly at war in 1979, when Chinese forces crossed Vietnam's frontier.
Vietnam and China -- as well as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan -- maintain conflicting claims over parts of the South China Sea, a potentially oil and gas rich body of water crossed by key shipping lanes.
In May and June, Vietnam accused Chinese vessels of harassing Vietnamese ships within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. China denied that its ships had done anything wrong.
In October, China and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain their dispute over the sea.
China has also warned foreign energy companies against exploration in the disputed sea after U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp said it had discovered hydrocarbons off central Vietnam in August, an area also claimed by China.
Before the East Asia Summit in November, China sought to keep the South China Sea off the agenda, but Premier Wen Jiabao bowed to pressure from Asian governments and the United States and begrudgingly addressed the maritime disputes.
Xi is also due to visit the United States early next year, burnishing his leadership credentials.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Paul Tait)