China 'committed to safe passage in South China Sea'

Territorial spats have not hurt global shipping, Premier Li assures Asean

TERRITORIAL disputes in the South China Sea have not affected global shipping trade in part due to China's "deep care" in ensuring freedom and safety of navigation, said Mr Li Keqiang, ahead of his first visit to the region as China's Premier.

China, as a big trading nation that also relies on the "unimpeded access" and safety of international shipping lanes, will continue to shoulder the responsibilities in ensuring ships can pass through them safely, pledged Mr Li.

"The truth is, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea have not affected the international shipping lane," he added.

"China will continue to actively advocate and participate in regional maritime cooperation, including maritime security cooperation, and uphold peace and tranquillity in this region."

Mr Li's remarks, released yesterday by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in response to questions from Asean media, mark Beijing's latest attempt to allay concerns over its handling of maritime spats with several Asean states.

Competing territorial claims by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have led to stand-offs between naval vessels and raised fears of armed conflict in the South China Sea, where one-third of the world's shipping trade passes through.

Mr Li, who begins his trip tomorrow with a visit to Brunei, where he will also attend the East Asia Summit - followed by visits to Thailand and Vietnam - also sought to ease concerns that China would seek hegemony as it grows stronger. He said it is understandable such questions are raised as "China is, in all measures, a major country in Asia" and there have been stories of big powers vying for hegemony.

But he pointed out the growing momentum towards peace and development and how China has managed to develop in a peaceful environment. "We have no reason to change our path of peaceful development. China's cultural values uphold the principle of 'not doing to others what you don't want others do to you'," Mr Li said.

The Chinese premier, who also gave a rundown of China's economic situation in his replies, listed seven proposals to push ties and cooperation with Asean.

Top of his list is a commitment by all parties towards building good neighbourly relations.

"China is ready to actively discuss with Asean countries the signing of a treaty on good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation to consolidate the political foundation for our strategic mutual trust," said Mr Li.

Other proposals include expanding financial cooperation to guard against new risks, upgrading the existing China-Asean Free Trade Agreement so as to achieve the goal of US$1 trillion (S$1.2 trillion) in two-way trade by 2020, and improving connectivity such as transport.

China and Asean should also work together in expanding people-to-people exchanges, tackling both traditional security and non-traditional security challenges like trans-border crimes, and boosting maritime cooperation such as the fisheries industries.