HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam gave Chinese President Xi Jinping the red carpet treatment Sunday at the start of a state visit, as the two communist neighbors try to broaden their economic ties and work on resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Xi and Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, reviewed an honor guard and headed for talks behind closed doors. It was Xi's first overseas trip since consolidating his power at a party congress last month.
Xi and U.S. President Donald Trump, among others, just finished an Asia-Pacific economic summit in the Vietnamese coastal city of Danang.
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang said that his country wants to end disputes in the South China Sea through peaceful means.
"It's our policy to settle disputes in the East Sea through peaceful negotiations and with respect for diplomatic and legal process in accordance with international law, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea," he said, referring to the South China Sea.
Quang made the comments Sunday during a joint news conference with Trump. Trump had offered during a meeting earlier Sunday with Quang to serve as a mediator on the South China Sea disputes.
Vietnam and China, along with four other governments, claim all or parts of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop rich natural resources and occupies one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
China in recent years has built artificial islands and increased its militarization there, drawing criticism from Washington, which argues that the U.S. has a national interest in freedom of navigation in sea lanes critical for world trade.
Vietnam has become the most vocal opponent of China's moves after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte softened his country's stance on China.
Tran Viet Thai of the Vietnam Diplomatic Academy said Xi's visit is important to build mutual trust.
"The visit marks a new step forward in Vietnam-China relations," he said. "Hopefully the relations will continue to stabilize, because the two sides currently share great interests in broadening their cooperation and maintaining stability."
Bilateral relations plunged to their lowest level in years when China in 2014 parked a giant oil rig in an area claimed by Vietnam. The incident sparked deadly anti-China protests for several weeks.
The two communist neighbors have in recent months experienced spats over the South China Sea. In July, Vietnam had to suspend an oil and gas exploration project conducted by Spain's Repsol company, under apparent pressure from China. In September, Vietnam protested live-fire drills by China near the Paracel islands.