China President Xi seeks peaceful resolution of disputes

He calls for 'equal-footed' talks to solve territorial issues in South China Sea

CHINESE President Xi Jinping, in his first major speech in South-east Asia, said China wants its territorial disputes in the South China Sea with several neighbouring countries to be handled peacefully with talks.

In a speech yesterday to Indonesia's Parliament - the first by a visiting foreign leader - Mr Xi called for "equal-footed" dialogue and friendly consultations to handle differences in the interest of regional stability.

Speaking on the second day of a two-day visit to South-east Asia's largest economy and an increasingly important trade and investment partner for China, Mr Xi turned to history to stress the depth of China's friendship with Indonesia and the region.

"Over the centuries, the vast oceans have served as the bond of friendship connecting the two peoples, not a barrier between them," he said, citing the voyages of the Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He. "Vessels full of goods and passengers travelled across the sea, exchanging products and fostering friendship."

To help rekindle personal ties, Mr Xi said he and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had agreed to each send 100 young people a year to visit each other's countries for the next five years.

China would also offer Asean countries 15,000 scholarships for study in China in the next three to five years. And China was also ready to send more volunteers to support Asean cultural, educational and medical development.

Mr Xi mentioned the warm response Chinese volunteers received in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, and said how appreciative Chinese people were of Indonesian volunteers in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

Mr Xi's visit, his first to the region since assuming office in March, comes amid soaring Asean trade with China - at US$66.6 billion (S$83billion) last year - territorial disputes over the Spratlys notwithstanding. The Spratlys are a group of islets in the South China Sea believed to be rich in oil and gas, claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Amid renewed US interest in the region, China is keen to strengthen ties with a number of South-east Asian countries.

A stronger China, Mr Xi sought to assure his audience, would present opportunities for development to Asia and the world, rather than pose a threat.

China was also "ready to discuss with Asean countries the prospect of concluding a treaty of good-neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation in a joint effort to build good-neighbourly relations," he added.

Yesterday, Mr Xi also opened a joint exhibition of photographs by Antara and Xinhua news agencies showing key moments in the China-Indonesia relationship, including one of leaders Sukarno and Mao Zedong.

Mr Xi and Dr Yudhoyono witnessed the signing of 21 agreements between Chinese and Indonesian companies on projects in transport, agriculture and mining, among other things, worth US$32.8 billion. They included a US$1.5 billion deal between China Communications Construction Company and Jakarta Monorail to finance and design part of the capital's first monorail.

Parliament Speaker Marzuki Alie said he hoped Chinese entrepreneurs would open plants in Indonesia to produce goods for international markets, adding: "We also hope China will further open up its market to us, so we can export more to China."

Mr Xi flew to Kuala Lumpur yesterday afternoon and was hosted to a private dinner by Prime Minister Najib Razak, before their talks today.

wahyudis@sph.com.sg