HAVANA: Cuban President Raul Castro has departed on a tour of Asian allies China and Vietnam that will include four days in Beijing and a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, officials said Monday.
The official Granma newspaper said Castro flew out of Havana on Sunday, but did not reveal other details about his visit to Cuba's two key Communist allies in Asia, also its most important trade partners in the region.
In Beijing, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that Castro would meet Hu during four days in Beijing, starting on Wednesday.
"Cuba is a major country in Latin America. It is also the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic ties with new China. China pays great attention to his state visit to China," said spokesman Liu Weimin.
Liu said the two delegations would sign cooperation documents, without giving details.
It is the first visit by Castro to either country since assuming power in 2008 from his ailing brother, former president and revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, who is 85.
Raul Castro will be accompanied on his tour by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Ricardo Cabrisas, vice chairman of Cuba's council of ministers, Granma said.
"These visits are of strategic importance, because China is one of the three main trading partners with Cuba," Juan Triana of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy told AFP.
"It is also important in these moments of great global difficulty to be able to explore whatever new business opportunities might exist with China and Vietnam," he said.
The visit also comes at a critically important time for Havana, in the throes of a massive overhaul of its economy toward a system that incorporates elements of capitalism -- a process already well underway in Vietnam and China.
Experts say Cuba is seeking guidance from its allies on how to navigate the transition.
Beijing and Hanoi have shown interest in supporting Havana as it goes through the painful and laborious process of reforming its outmoded economy, which until recently had been virtually unchanged for half a century.
Cuba in 1960 was the first government to establish diplomatic ties with communist China. Relations between the two nations grew even closer after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, which precipitated Cuba's downward economic spiral from which Havana is still trying to recover.
China is Cuba's top trading partner after Venezuela, with bilateral trade totaling some $1.8 billion per year.
It has investments in transit, oil and household appliances, and also is a vital source of credit for the cash-strapped communist island.
Vietnam, meanwhile, is exporter of key agricultural products. It is Cuba's main supplier of rice, a staple food item on the island. According to official statistics, bilateral trade totaled $269 million in 2010.
President Hu Jintao met with both Castro brothers when he visited Cuba in 2009.
China's vice president and Hu's likely successor Xi Jinping visited Cuba in 2010, and signed key cooperation agreements, including an oil deal.
The secretary general of Vietnam's Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, visited Cuba in April.