Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi will be in Hanoi this week for an annual dialogue on bilateral cooperation amid maritime tensions between the neighbours that look set to overshadow the event, a Vietnamese scholar and a source close to the foreign ministry in Hanoi say.
Yang's visit will be the highest-level meeting between the governments since China's deployment of an oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam's coast on May 1 triggered sea confrontations that almost scuppered bilateral ties.
But in a departure from the usual practice of publicising the event well in advance, both foreign ministries have yet to make any announcement. The source, and scholars, said this underscored the trickiness of the meeting's timing; the governments had to address the issues while avoiding a possible backlash from their publics.
Yang will be in Hanoi for the latest round of meetings of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee on Cooperation and is expected to hold talks with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, according to Dr Tran Truong Thuy, director of the Institute for East Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
"This is a regular meeting on cooperation, but the main topic this time will be focused on issues in the South China Sea," Thuy said. The source close to Vietnam's foreign ministry said the meeting would be on Tuesday.
Yang and Minh exchanged sharp words over the telephone on May 6 as the crisis began. Minh denounced China's deployment of the rig in the South China Sea and the accompanying vessels as illegal, while Yang said Vietnam's "harassment of Chinese companies' normal activities" had "severely violated China's sovereignty".
Since that conversation, ties between the ideological allies have been on a slide. Vessels from both sides have repeatedly collided with each other and large-scale anti-China protests broke out in several Vietnamese cities. Hanoi has also threatened to take its South China Sea dispute with Beijing to an international court.
Beijing is reported to have either rejected or ignored Hanoi's repeated requests for dialogue between higher-ranking officials than Yang and Minh. Thuy said it was not yet clear if Yang would meet officials more senior than Minh during this trip.
Established in 2006, the China-Vietnam Steering Committee is supposed to meet annually to discuss key bilateral issues and cooperation projects. Last year, the meeting was held in Beijing, where Yang led a delegation from various ministries and provincial governments to hold talks with Minh's predecessor, Nguyen Thien Nhan.
But previous tensions in the South China Sea have disrupted the dialogue. The meeting was postponed in 2007 when tensions spiked after Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat and killed a crewman, said Zhang Mingliang , a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou.
While the two governments agreed to carry on with the high-level meeting despite recent tensions, Zhang said neither side appeared ready for the talks as no effective solution to the dispute was in sight.
"This is not very good timing for such a high-level meeting, but they don't want to cancel it because they have to address the problems," Zhang said.
Neither the Chinese nor the Vietnamese foreign ministries would confirm Yang's trip to Vietnam despite repeated requests from the Sunday Morning Post. Zhang said Chinese authorities previously announced the meetings at least a week in advance.
The Vietnamese source said Hanoi would only release news of the meeting when Yang was in Vietnam. The source said this was probably to avoid stirring up the Vietnamese public, which was already upset by Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh's speech at the Shangri La Dialogue a few weeks ago in which he said "all is fine" in Vietnam's relationship with China.