CHINA has pledged to work towards a code of conduct to manage tensions in the contentious South China Sea, even as a new flare-up erupts between Manila and Beijing over a shoal claimed by both sides.
Speaking at the 10th China-Asean expo here, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told South-east Asian leaders that China is committed to maintaining peace in the region over the long term and that its policy of friendliness towards Asean "is not a short-term ploy".
"China is willing to be accountable and responsible and use peaceful consultations to find appropriate solutions," he told foreign leaders, including Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, at the event.
Mr Li added that China would "proceed systematically and soundly push forward talks on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea".
The resource-rich sea sees overlapping claims from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. After years of resisting plans for a binding Code of Conduct aimed at preventing conflicts between the claimants, Beijing has softened its stance and is holding talks on it this month.
But the latest spat shows that the talks may be tough going.
In Manila yesterday, Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said China was preparing to build a new structure in the uninhabited Scarborough Shoal. Beijing's acts have violated the Declaration of Conduct, a non-binding agreement on maritime conduct signed by China and Asean in 2002, he added.
A defence spokesman showed the media an aerial photo of what he said were concrete blocks on the shoal.
Lawmaker Walden Bello told Agence France-Presse the building structures could be China's way of asserting de facto ownership, like how it had taken control in 1995 of Mischief Reef, an outcrop also claimed by Manila.
The dispute comes just after Philippine President Benigno Aquino said last week that Beijing had withdrawn an invitation for him to attend the expo. Beijing has denied this.
But at the opening of the expo yesterday, Mr Li sounded an upbeat note, saying the South China Sea disputes should not affect the bigger picture of China-Asean relations.
He also mooted an upgraded version of the China-Asean free trade agreement that took effect in 2010, and called for improved connectivity to boost cooperation and usher in a "diamond decade" for China-Asean ties.
Speaking at the event, DPM Teo said improved connectivity would enhance linkages and bring greater prosperity to the region, adding it could be done through joint development of infrastructure in Asean states.
With China likely to invest more in Asean, there is potential for greater economic integration of Asean and China, he added.
Mr Teo also said Singapore, which will be the country of honour at the fair next year, will continue to work with China to boost China-Asean relations, which marked 10 years of strategic partnership this year.
"The fact that we have a strategic partnership between China and Asean means that we meet regularly and we are able to discuss issues frankly," he told Singapore reporters in Nanning.
"We don't always agree, but at least we are talking to each other and we are always looking for ways forward." Mr Teo returned home yesterday.