Li Keqiang offers Asean cautious backing for South China Sea accord

Premier Li Keqiang tells Asean leaders China supports talks on Code of Conduct for South China Sea through 'friendly consultations'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 3:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 4:37am

Premier Li Keqiang told Asean leaders yesterday China was serious about wanting a peaceful resolution to disputes over the South China Sea, though he signalled Beijing was in no rush to sign a long-mooted accord on maritime conduct.

"South China Sea disputes should not, and will not, affect the overall China-Asean co-operation," Li said at the opening of China-Asean Expo in Nanning in Guangxi .

Friction over the South China Sea has intensified as China uses its growing naval might to assert its claim to most of its area, believed to be rich in oil and gas, raising fears of a military clash.

Four of Asean's 10 members, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims with China.

The four-day business and investment fair was attended by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, among other regional leaders. Philippine President Benigno Aquino, however, did not attend after Manila alleged Beijing had set conditions for his trip, while China denied having invited him.

After years of resisting efforts by Asean to start talks on an agreement on maritime rules governing behaviour in the region, the so-called code of Conduct, China has said it will host talks between senior officials this month.

Li said China had always advocated talks on the South China Sea on the basis of "respecting historical reality and international law".

"The Chinese government is willing and ready to assume a policy of seeking an appropriate resolution through friendly consultations," Li told the audience.

China would "proceed systematically and soundly push forward talks on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea", he said without elaborating in comments aired live on state TV.

He repeated that talks on the dispute should only be carried out between the parties directly concerned - Beijing's standard line, which rejects the involvement of outside parties such as the United States or multilateral forums.

Li stressed it was Beijing's long-term policy to maintain friendly relations with its Asean neighbours.

Among a host of initiatives to foster China's co-operation with the regional grouping, Li called for further trade liberalisation to build on the existing bilateral free -trade agreement; speeding up transnational infrastructure including transport, telecommunication and energy links; strengthening co-operation on regional financial stability; and establishing a China-Asean maritime partnership.

His call was echoed by Thailand's Yingluck, who also urged "Asean leaders to meet as soon as possible to discuss high-speed-railway construction".

Reuters, Bloomberg