SINGAPORE - China has always insisted that the dispute in the South China Sea be resolved peacefully through talks, said Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday (Nov 7).
Freedom of passage in the South China Sea has never been a problem and will never be a problem, he added at the Singapore Lecture.
But he reasserted China's territorial claims in the South China Sea: "The South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. It is our duty to uphold sovereignty."
He said the starting point of China's policy has been "to maintain peace", and that "we welcome non-Asian countries to make a positive contribution to peace and development in Asia".
He added: "Some islands have been occupied by others. But we've all along advocated resolution of disputes by peaceful dialogue."
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Mr Xi, who is on a two-day visit to Singapore, made these points at the Singapore Lecture held at the Yong Siew Toh Music Conservatory at the National University of Singapore.
He started his speech by paying tribute to the "hardworking and visionary people of Singapore" who have built the city into one of most advanced countries in Asia and congratulated Singapore on its success.
He noted the long roots of China's relationship with Singapore, beginning with Admiral Zheng He's visits to the island.
He also recalled his long association with Singapore, beginning in 1986 with his first visit as executive vice mayor of Xiamen, one of China's four special economic zones. His aim then was to learn about the Jurong Industrial Park.
The bilateral relationship between Singapore and China is a partnership that progresses with time, he said, adding "I'm confident we will scale new heights."
He also emphasised the ancient ties between China and Southeast Asia, adding that "we value harmony, diversity and good neighbours".
He noted that China and the region have weathered many crises together, including the Asian financial crisis and the Wenchuan earthquake.
China's neighbourhood is a "top priority" in the country's agenda: "We have a responsibility to ensure peace, stability in this neighbourhood."
He reiterated China's commitment to peaceful partnership with neighbours and said that those who speak of a China threat "do so out of ignorance of China's past and present, or from misunderstanding or hidden motives".
As examples of China's efforts at building consensus and cooperation, he sited the Silk Road Initiative, which has attracted the interest of 60 countries, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has been established.
Asia, he said, is the engine driving global growth and Asia's stability contributes to global stability.
But he acknowledged that the region also faced a host of security issues such as terrorism, cyber crimes and environmental challenges.
He suggested three ways in which China could deepen its cooperation with neighbours. Firstly, to work together to uphold peace and stability. Secondly to jointly address security issues. And lastly to draw on the region's common Asian identity to encourage exchanges of people and culture.
His speech also touched on challenges that China faces.
He said that 30 years of opening up has benefited the Chinese people. Like Ali Baba's open sesame door, it cannot be closed again.
Now, China has the largest middle income group in the world. But he acknowledged that China must do better to help the 70 million poor people in its population.
Mr Xi also paid tribute to the two great statesmen who laid the foundation for China and Singapore's bilateral ties: Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew. He said he draws great inspiration from his conversations with Singapore's late founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
"His voice is still ringing in my ears."
Earlier, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean acknowledged President Xi's role in enhancing bilateral ties between China and Singapore with the upgrade of the free trade agreement and the third joint project between the two governments in Chongqing city.
He noted that Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China and that Singapore can look forward to the huge potential of cooperation between the two countries. He added that President Xi's visit will set a direction for the two countries' relationship.
Mr Xi's day started with a visit to the China Cultural Centre in Queen Street, where he was greeted by Emeritus Minister Goh Chok Tong. He will be meeting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong later on Saturday.