China's Xi says treasures friendship with Vietnam, despite dispute

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday told the head of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party he treasured the two nations' traditional friendship, but disagreements needed careful handling to ensure regional stability amid an ugly dispute.

Communist parties rule both countries and trade has swelled to $50 billion (S$68 billion) annually, but Vietnam has long been suspicious of its giant neighbour, especially over China's increasingly assertive claims to almost the entire South China Sea.

Anti-Chinese violence flared in Vietnam last year after a $1-billion deepwater rig owned by China's state-run CNOOC oil company was parked 240 km (150 miles) off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea.

Since then, however, China has sought to make amends with Vietnam, including sending senior officials to Hanoi.

"China's party and government have long set great store on China and Vietnam's traditional friendship, and ... are willing to promote the healthy development of ties," Xi told Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, China's Foreign Ministry said.

Increasing mutual political trust, deepening cooperation and resolving disputes were in the interest of both nations, and helped regional peace and prosperity, Xi told Trong in his telephone call.

Xi invited Trong to visit China this year at his earliest convenience, while Trong invited Xi to Vietnam, the ministry added.

It made no mention of the South China Sea.

China claims about 90 per cent of the South China Sea, displaying its reach on official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the potentially energy-rich waters that are crossed by key global shipping lanes.