Premier calls for joint negotiations on South China Sea as pledged
Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday criticized unilateral moves raising territorial disputes for international arbitration as a betrayal of the Southeast Asian nations' pledge to peacefully handle the South China Sea issue.
Although Li did not mention any specific country, it is believed he meant the Philippines, which stirred the regional situation earlier this year by calling for international arbitration on the South China Sea instead of peacefully negotiating with Beijing, observers said.
China and ASEAN have agreed that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through "consultations and negotiations between the countries directly concerned", Li said.
"The behavior of unilaterally raising bilateral disputes for international arbitration is a violation of the spirit and principles of the ‘Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea', which was jointly reached by China and all members of ASEAN," he said, citing the landmark legal document signed in 2002.
Li made the remarks while attending the 8th East Asia Summit in Seri Begawan, Brunei, where 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and eight dialogue partners — China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the United States — gathered.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said Manila is "clearly aware" that Beijing does not intend to seek a military settlement and China has exercised great restraint despite the Philippines' provocations.
"In regard to the South China sea issue, the Philippines is still far from winning sympathy from its Southeast Asian counterparts and has not obtained any public commitment from the United States," Shi said.
The Chinese premier and Philippine President Benigno Aquino talked briefly in a VIP room on the sidelines of the summits on Wednesday, and Li expounded on China's position and principles on the South China Sea issue.
All the parties "should properly deal with the issues that constrain development, properly handle and manage disputes, and create enabling circumstances for peace, security and development", Li told the summit on Thursday.
Top figures from the US and Japan have paid considerable attention to the South China Sea issue in recent years with frequent calls for cooperation with the contending parties to deal with the disputes and the so-called navigation freedom issue.
In a response, the Chinese premier said navigation in the South China Sea is free and navigation safety is guaranteed.
Yang Baoyun, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Peking University, said some stakeholders outside the sea — especially Japan — are imposing pressure on China by their constant remarks on the issue.
"Such engagement obviously attempts to alienate the relationship between China and ASEAN," Yang said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on the sidelines of the series of East Asia Summits that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea — yet to be formulated by China and the ASEAN countries — is "a necessity for the long term".
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also attending the summits, said late on Wednesday that Tokyo would continue to cooperate with ASEAN in resolving the row in the South China Sea, Reuters said.
Li called on ASEAN countries to actively and steadily push for consultations on the Code of Conduct based on fully implementing the Declaration of Conduct.
On Wednesday, Li told counterparts from ASEAN countries that "a peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all, while a turbulent one benefits no one".
"Li's comments are a policy statement that clarifies Beijing's wish to ensure the China-ASEAN relationship is not affected by the South China Sea issue, and also signifies that no provocations are expected from its Southeast Asian neighbors," said Yang of Peking University.
Li is on his first Southeast Asian tour after taking office, visiting Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam during the week from Wednesday to Oct 15.