China committed to peaceful settlement of bilateral disputes over South China Sea: Premier Li Keqiang

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Indonesian President Joko Widodo speak during a meeting at the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesia, on May 7, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BOGOR, WEST JAVA PROVINCE - Chinese premier Li Keqiang said China is committed to peaceful settlement of bilateral disputes over the South China Sea with Asean nations despite differing views.

Mr Li made the remarks on Monday (May 7) after holding talks with President Joko Widodo at Istana Bogor in West Java, in his first visit to Indonesia as Prime Minister.

"Together China and Asean will safeguard regional stability. And together we will safeguard peace, stability, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," Mr Li said at a joint press conference with President Joko.

Mr Li spoke in Mandarin and his remarks were translated into English and Bahasa Indonesia.

The talks included discussions on regional security and China's Belt and Road Initiative projects in Indonesia. Mr Li's visit also marked the fifth anniversary of a strategic comprehensive partnership between the two Asian giants.

Mr Joko said at the press conference: "Besides discussing bilateral relations, we also touched on the regional and global issues.

"In the past 50 years, Asean has contributed to peace and stability in the South-east Asian region and such achievement will be maintained and improved."

The meeting between Mr Li and Mr Joko comes amid growing concerns about China's militarisation of the South China Sea.

American news network CNBC reported last week that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three man-made outposts in the South China Sea. The report cited sources with direct knowledge of United States intelligence.

Last year (2017), China was the third-largest foreign investor in Indonesia, with investment amounting to US$3.4 billion (S$4.5 billion).

The leaders agreed on Monday to increase economic cooperation, with Mr Joko stressing that it is vital for Indonesia to increase exports to China.

"The Prime Minister said he is willing to support that," Mr Joko noted, adding that China will step up imports of a range of Indonesian goods, including palm oil, cocoa, swallow's nest (edible bird's nest) and exotic tropical fruits such as mangosteen and dragon fruit.

Mr Li committed to increase palm oil imports by at least 500,000 tonnes a year. Indonesia, the world's largest palm oil exporter, sold 3.73 million tonnes to China in 2017. Its other main markets are India and Europe.

Meanwhile, Beijing sees South-east Asia's largest economy as a key partner for its infrastructure companies. Chinese and state-owned local firms are working to build Indonesia's first high-speed rail linking Jakarta and Bandung in West Java.

Indonesia said last week it needed to find ways to expedite the US$5.9 billion project, where only a fraction of the funding needs have been disbursed by China.

Cost over-runs and obstacles in land acquisition have hampered the development.

Mr Li held a summit with Indonesian entrepreneurs in Jakarta on Monday night and he leaves on Tuesday for Japan for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae In.

The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea will sit down for three-way talks on Wednesday for the first time in 2½ years, with North Korea and economic cooperation set to be high on the agenda.

Ties have been fraught in recent years, due in part to territorial disputes and Chinese mistrust of American overreach on its two allies.

The Tokyo summit comes amid warmer diplomatic relations between the three nations, catalysed by an apparent detente on the Korean peninsula and growing concerns over trade protectionism.

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