BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday called for “peace, friendship and cooperation” at the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as he extended a hand to Southeast Asian leaders wary of Beijing’s territorial claims in the strategic waters.
“A peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all,” Li told the leaders during a summit in Brunei.
“We need to work together to make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”
Li made the comments in a meeting with the heads of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) during an annual series of summits held this year in the sultanate.
Some Asean members who hold various claims to the West Philippine Sea have voiced increasing alarm at perceived provocative acts by Beijing in asserting its belief that most of the body of water is Chinese maritime territory.
But China has sought to portray a friendlier face more recently—while holding its ground on the issue—including during an Asia-Pacific summit on the Indonesian island of Bali earlier this week.
In sharp contrast to the often icy tone China takes with perceived rivals like the United States and Japan, Li showered his Asean counterparts with promises of friendship and deeper economic integration.
He called for the two sides to ramp up efforts to more than double China- Asean trade to $1 trillion by 2020, from about $400 billion last year.
Li’s appearance in Brunei comes after Chinese President Xi Jinping dominated the Bali economic summit in the absence of US President Barack Obama.
Obama had to stay home due to the budget paralysis back in Washington and was represented in Bali, as well as in Brunei, by his secretary of state, John Kerry.
Asian leaders met against a backdrop of divisive territorial disputes and flagging free trade efforts, with China flexing more diplomatic muscle in the absence of US President Barack Obama.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang takes the baton at the meetings in Brunei from President Xi Jinping, who took center-stage at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bali with Obama stuck at home due to the US government shutdown.
The two days of talks in Brunei also include the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
In Brunei, Obama’s top diplomat John Kerry will shoulder the task of showing support for America’s Asian allies, wary over Beijing’s uncompromising territorial claims to areas including most of the South China Sea.
But Li signalled he would extend a Southeast Asian charm offensive launched earlier this week by Xi, saying China’s relations with the region were at a “historical starting point”.
“China will in no way follow the old pattern of ‘seeking hegemony after becoming strong’,” Li said in an interview published in Brunei media.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—all members of the Asean—also have various claims to the strategic South China Sea.
Obama had said earlier in the year he planned during the Brunei gathering to lend his presidential prestige to calls for a speedy agreement between China and Asean on a Code of Conduct at sea to avoid accidental conflict.
But analysts said Obama’s absence deprives Asean the chance to rally behind US power.
“To some degree, (Obama’s absence) has lessened the prominence of sovereignty issues in the South China Sea at the summit,” said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing.
“And maybe the Chinese role will become more prominent as a result.”