Premier Li Keqiang said boosting ties in Southeast Asia was at the top of Beijing's diplomatic agenda as he called on nations in the region to avoid letting territorial disputes sour relations with China.
In an address to a regional summit, notable for the absence of US President Barack Obama, the premier called on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to focus on economic co-operation and consider drafting a friendship treaty with Beijing.
"The new Chinese government attaches great importance to Asean and takes Asean as a priority on its diplomatic agenda regarding the neighbouring countries," Li said.
"We must not let the question of the South China Sea affect the overall China-Asean relations." China has been locking horns with Southeast Asian nations over disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea, leading to worries that Beijing may become more assertive with its growing military might.
Li struck a friendly tone regarding the dispute, suggesting that parties directly related to it should explore possibilities for joint development before a final settlement was reached.
But he reiterated China's stance that disputes should be resolved through talks between claimant states, adding that China was willing to uphold freedom of navigation in the disputed waters.
Video: China premier calls for 'peace' in South China Sea
"A peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all, while a turbulent one benefits no one," he said. "We need to work together to make it a sea of peace, friendship and co-operation."
Li said China supported a leading role for Asean regional affairs and urged both sides to "work jointly like one big family for their common future".
He said the two sides should strengthen exchanges and co-operation in the security field, and expand their free trade area with the aim of raising two-way trade to US$1 trillion by 2020.
Beijing also supported Hong Kong in conducting free trade negotiations with Asean as a separate customs territory, Li said.
Lin Xiaoguang , a specialist in international relations at the Central Party School, said: "By stressing that the Asean should play a leading role in regional affairs, Beijing is sending a message that the US and Japan should stay away from intervening into the region."
During a meeting last night, Li and US Secretary of State John Kerry each extolled a new chapter in Washington-Beijing ties, although friction was evident.
"I am sure that we are committed to living with each other in harmony," Li told Kerry, while repeating China's long-standing position that it is far from a developed country and as such cannot be expected to live up to the same standards as the West.
To that, Kerry offered a tart rejoinder. "We think you are a little more developed than you may want to say you are, but nevertheless we have the same responsibility regardless," he said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press