Vice-President Xi Jinping is due to visit neighbouring Vietnam next week - a mission that analysts believe will see him wade into South China Sea issues as a key test ahead of his expected elevation to the full presidency in 2013.
Luong Thanh Nghi, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman, confirmed that Xi would visit Hanoi from December 20 to 22 at the invitation of Vice-President Nguyen Thi Doan.
The two sides would 'exchange views on measures to consolidate and strengthen the comprehensive, strategic and co-operative partnership between Vietnam and China', Nghi said.
News of the mission came as a planned visit next week by Premier Wen Jiabao to Nepal was postponed due to 'China's internal reasons', according to an Associated Press report quoting Nepal's Deputy Prime Minister, Narayan Kaji Shrestha. Wen is also due to visit Myanmar but it is not yet clear if that leg of his trip is still on.
The South China Sea dispute is widely expected to dominate Xi's visit after a year of heavy diplomacy to ease worsening tensions, and moves by Vietnam to deepen ties with not just the United States, but India and Japan as well.
For some observers, it resembles the way President Hu Jintao, shortly before taking office in November 2002, was tasked to handle the collision between a US surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter near Hainan Island.
'China can send other top leaders to Vietnam for improving bilateral ties, but it is Xi going there now,' said Jia Qingguo, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.
'I believe there may be some special considerations behind it.'
Jia also said China was showing Southeast Asian nations it was highly concerned over the issue.
Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, echoed the comments. 'If Xi is to step up to China's top posts he must prove his mettle in dealing with Vietnam; no doubt the official reporting of Xi's visit will be upbeat and general, but some hard bargaining will take place as well,' the veteran scholar of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship said, adding that Xi would 'have his work cut out' with the Vietnamese.
He said China would try to prevent a united front against its interests forming within the Association of South East Asian Nations ahead of meetings on the South China Sea hosted by Beijing next month.
Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Xi would be gaining more international exposure in coming months. 'This is a tactic for him to establish good ties with foreign leaders to create favourable working conditions when he officially takes charge,' Du said.
Despite diplomatic and economic efforts to ease the dispute, some wanted tougher action.
'China is quite passive in the dispute,' said Xu Shaoli, deputy director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'The country should take a more proactive approach, and act tough like Vladimir Putin.'
Ian Storey, a strategic scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said he believed Xi's visit would offer few opportunities for a breakthrough on the South China Sea with the Vietnamese, with whom China has a fraternal yet historically suspicious relationship.
'And I don't think he'll be carrying much in the way of aid or economic inducements - China knows it can't buy Vietnam off now,' Storey said. 'It will be more about setting course for his future dealings with Hanoi.'
Beijing has been closely watching the emerging US-Vietnamese relationship, part of Washington's intensifying engagement across East Asia - ties between former enemies that have included military ship visits to highly-strategic Vietnamese ports.
Deputy US Secretary of State William Burns leaves Hanoi today after talks with officials over what a US statement called 'our developing strategic relationship' with Hanoi.