China extends hand to wary SE Asia at summit
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) speaks with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah at the ASEAN-China summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on October 9, 2013
Premier Li Keqiang called for peace in the South China Sea and expanded Chinese trade with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as he met the bloc's leaders in the oil-flush sultanate of 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 President Xi Jinping, who underlined Chinese power by occupying centre-stage earlier this week at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bali while Obama was stuck at home due to the US government shutdown.
China asserts sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including waters near the coasts of its neighbours.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei -- all ASEAN members -- have competing claims to parts of the sea, and Manila and Hanoi have in recent years repeatedly accused China of becoming more aggressive in the dispute.
Obama had said earlier in the year he planned during the Brunei gathering to lend his weight to calls for a speedy agreement between China and ASEAN on a code of conduct at sea to avoid accidental conflict.
However, as he did in Bali, Obama's top diplomat John Kerry was once again in damage-control mode over Obama's no-show and the questions it has raised about the US commitment to the region.
"The partnership that we share with ASEAN remains a top priority for the Obama administration," Kerry said during a US-ASEAN gathering.
China has sought to portray a friendlier face recently, dangling lucrative trade promises around the region -- while holding its ground on its claim to most of the South China Sea.
In sharp contrast to the often icy tone Beijing takes with perceived rivals like the United States, a smiling and energetic Li showered ASEAN with pledges of friendship and deeper economic integration.
He called for China-ASEAN trade to be more than doubled to $1 trillion by 2020, from about $400 billion last year.
The two days of talks in Brunei began with an annual ASEAN summit followed by the bloc's separate meetings with Japan, South Korea, China and the United States.
China has succeeded in lowering temperatures in the sea disputes by agreeing recently to discuss a code of conduct with ASEAN.
Even officials from the Philippines welcomed the tentative signs of a thaw.
But President Benigno Aquino reminded his ASEAN colleagues of the risks of instability at sea, according to a text of his remarks during the closed-door ASEAN summit.
"Clearly, our development as a region cannot be realised in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist," he said.
Li and the Southeast Asian leaders were all smiles as they cut a giant blue and pink cake to mark the 10th anniversary of a China-ASEAN strategic partnership.
However, some experts view Beijing's recent moves as a bid to buy time while it continues to strengthen its regional clout.
"(China) is not going to compromise on its claims," said Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
China signalled ahead of the meetings that it would not look kindly on attempts to raise sea disputes at an expanded East Asia Summit of 18 nations on Thursday, in comments that appeared aimed at Washington.
The South China Sea is believed to hold vast deposits of oil and natural gas and is regarded as a potential military flashpoint.
Japan's ties with China -- as well as with South Korea -- also have been tense due to territorial disputes.
The three countries each held separate talks with the ASEAN bloc on Wednesday. They will join in a group gathering Thursday.
However, Beijing has ruled out bilateral talks between Li and Japan's leader Shinzo Abe in Brunei.
With the region facing increasing economic headwinds, trade was high on the agenda.
ASEAN, a vibrant region of 600 million people, wants to establish a common market and manufacturing base to better compete with economic powers China and India, but there are growing doubts about whether it will meet a 2015 target.
"With two years left to go we still face challenges in implementing our community roadmap," Brunei's ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, told his counterparts.
ASEAN is also pushing an ambitious 16-nation free trade zone called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that also involves China.
The initiative is seen as rivalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact championed by Washington.
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