Cuban President Raul Castro arrived in this capital Wednesday for his first official visit to China as head of state, a trip on which he will meet with the present and future leaders of the Asian giant to seek support for the communist island's economic reform process.

Castro, accompanied by the vice chairman of the Council of Ministers, Ricardo Cabrisas - who had traveled to Beijing in December 2011 - and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, on Thursday will begin their agenda of official meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and another with the country's top legislator, Wu Bangguo.

Friday is a key day on the trip, with Castro scheduled to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and with Vice President Xi Jinping (who has been tapped to move into the presidency in 2013), as well as with Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the main candidate to succeed Wen next year.

During these meetings, Castro will get to know the future leadership of the Chinese regime and will sign several cooperation agreements the content of which has not yet been revealed, although China observers expect the pacts to include ones in agriculture, energy and/or tourism.

This is the first visit to China by the Cuban leader since in 2008 he assumed the duties of his brother Fidel at the head of the only communist regime in the Americas, although Raul Castro had visited the country on two earlier occasions, in 1997 and in 2005, to study the Chinese process of reform and economic opening.

Castro will also visit Vietnam on this tour, another communist country that has achieved high growth rates after abandoning the concept of a planned economy.

On the first part of the Asian tour, China possibly will offer to make investments in Cuba which will come in addition to those it already has made in sectors like transportation or the petroleum industry.

Castro's trip to China comes at a time of profound change for Cuba, whose regime in 2001 approved the economic reform plan that includes, among other things, a rather timid opening of the economy to private initiative and the reduction of the island's bloated government payroll.

The visit has a marked economic and trade-oriented tone, and it is hoped that both parties will analyze ways to broaden bilateral exchanges, despite the rapid growth in this area in recent years from $590 million in 2004 to $1.8 billion in 2010.

The two nations will also analyze how to balance their bilateral trade, a situation which always arises between China and other countries where trade is generally excessively favorable to the Asian giant, which exports mainly electronic equipment to the island, while it imports sugar and nickel.

Cuba in 1960 was the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic ties with the communist Chinese regime, and relations between the two nations survived the disintegration of the Soviet Union and have strengthened in recent years as Beijing has broadened its trade and investment policy abroad. EFE