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Vice-President Xi Jinping at the China-Asean Expo. Photo: Xinhua

Xi Jinping uses tougher tone on South China Sea disputes at Asean meeting

President-in-waiting says Beijing will try to resolve territorial issues with 'friendly talks', but will stand firm to safeguard sovereignty

Xi Jinping

Vice-President Xi Jinping told Asean leaders yesterday that China wanted "friendly" talks to resolve territorial disputes but would stand firm on issues of sovereignty.

Xi, expected to succeed Hu Jintao as party general secretary in a matter of weeks, outlined his regional policy stance to neighbouring members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In a speech at the China-Asean Expo in Nanning , Guangxi , Xi said: "We are firm in safeguarding China's sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and are committed to resolving differences with neighbours concerning territorial land, territorial sea and maritime rights and interests peacefully through friendly negotiations."

Mainland analysts said Xi, 59, appeared to have adopted a tougher tone than in previous statements by mainland officials by putting sovereignty before negotiations.

But he largely retained the approach established during Hu's reign by highlighting China's role in economic stability and development.

Professor Zhang Mingliang , an expert on South China Sea affairs at Jinan University, said: "Xi's statement on safeguarding sovereignty is obviously more assertive and explicit [than those in previous official speeches]."

But Xi did not explicitly mention territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Instead he assured China's neighbours - including Vietnam and the Philippines, which have been involved in diplomatic rows with China over competing claims in the South China Sea - that China was willing to invest more in manufacturing, commercial services and new energy.

He also said China would encourage state enterprises to increase investment in Asean countries.

With trade between China and the Asean bloc growing by 20 per cent annually over the last two decades, Xi said China's own prosperity could be guaranteed only by having good relations with its neighbours.

"China's sustained development and prosperity offer an important and lasting window of opportunity to its neighbours, and promise important development opportunities to countries around the world - Asean countries included," said Xi.

Beijing has insisted that territorial disputes in the South China Sea can be resolved only through bilateral talks with individual rival claimants. The US has been pushing for a South China Sea code of conduct, which Beijing has been reluctant to sign.

Vietnam and China claim the Paracel islands (called the Hoang Sa Islands by Vietnam and the Xisha Islands by China) and the Spratly Islands (called the Nansha Islands by China) in whole.

Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, meanwhile, claim parts of the Spratlys.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xi uses a tougher tone on disputes