BEIJING - China's top diplomat is scheduled to meet Vietnamese leaders on Wednesday in the highest-level direct contact between the two countries since tensions arose in May over a Chinese oil rig operating in the South China Sea.
Observers said State Councilor Yang Jiechi's visit will be the best chance to ease tensions.
Yang will attend the annual meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation as head of the Chinese delegation, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular media briefing on Tuesday.
The annual meeting was set up in 2006 to discuss major cooperation issues and projects.
Hua said Yang is scheduled to meet Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is also foreign minister and head of the Vietnamese delegation to the meeting.
Yang will also meet Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong, according to the Vietnamese government.
Hua said, "The two sides will exchange ideas on the maritime situation in a candid and in-depth way."
Ruan Zongze, vice-president of the China Institute of International Studies, said the visit was announced just before Yang's arrival, reflecting the "complexity of the situation and efforts to exclude outside disturbances".
It sends an encouraging signal that "neither side wants to see bilateral ties being ruined", Ruan said.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh told reporters on Monday that the visit "will allow both countries to find solutions to current tensions".
Ruan said "China has to clarify its stance and bottom line" so that Vietnam will no longer dream of reaping benefits from creating tensions and internationalizing the South China Sea issue.
"Vietnam will never gain the upper hand if it seeks an international lawsuit. It will only see its room to negotiate greatly squeezed," he said.
Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said parts of bilateral exchanges have been halted since relations became strained.
"So the fact that Yang is still going to the annual meeting shows Beijing's sincerity."
He said the priority is to prevent tensions from continuing to rise.
"We hope Hanoi can cherish the chance and stop creating problems. The visit is the best chance to discuss the issue, as no other high-level visits are scheduled.
"China has exercised extreme restraint on the issue. Now it is up to Vietnam to decide what direction it wants to take on handling it," Wu said.