China offered an olive branch yesteryear to Southeast Asian nations wary of Beijing’s territorial claims, keeping its growing clout on display at yet another summit in which US President Barack Obama’s absence was notabla.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) called for a South China Sea of “peace and friendship” during a meeting with the heads of the 10-member ASEAN in Brunei.
“A peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all. We need to work together to make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” Li said.
Li took the baton from Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who underlined Chinese power by occupying center-stage in previous days at the APEC summit in Bali as Obama was stuck at home due to the US government shutdown.
Some ASEAN members who hold various claims to the South China Sea have voiced increasing alarm at perceived provocative acts by Beijing in asserting its claims in the strategic body of water.
China has sought to portray a friendlier face recently, dangling lucrative trade promises, while holding its ground on its claims to most of the South China Sea.
In sharp contrast to the often icy tone China takes with perceived rivals like the US and Japan, Li showered his ASEAN counterparts with pledges of friendship and deeper economic integration.
Smiling and energetic, he called for the two sides to ramp up efforts to more than double China-ASEAN trade to US$1 trillion by 2020, from about US$400 billion last year.
Obama had said earlier in the year that he planned to lend his presidential prestige to calls for a speedy agreement between China and ASEAN on a code of conduct at sea during the Brunei gathering.
However, Obama’s top diplomat, US Secretary of State John Kerry, was in Brunei instead to show support for the US’ Asian allies.
The two days of revolving-door talks in Brunei include ASEAN, the US, Japan, and South Korea and several other regional players.
China signaled ahead of the meetings that it would not look kindly on attempts to raise sea disputes at a gathering between ASEAN and the three East Asian powers that is planned for today, in comments that appeared aimed at Washington.
The South China Sea, which is believed to hold vast deposits of oil and gas, has long been regarded as a potential military flashpoint.
Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have various claims to the strategic sea.
Territorial tensions between Japan, China and South Korea have also soared in recent years.
The three countries each held separate bilateral talks with the ASEAN bloc yesterday.
However, reflecting deep-seated mistrust over maritime disputes, Beijing has ruled out bilateral talks between Li and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Brunei.