NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang proposed a friendship treaty with Southeast Asian countries on Thursday but reiterated that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be settled directly between countries involved.
China, Taiwan and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have competing claims in the sea where concern is growing of an escalation in disputes even as the claimants work to establish agreements to resolve them.
“China … stands ready to become the first dialogue partner to sign with Asean a treaty of friendship and cooperation,” Li told leaders at an East Asian summit in Myanmar.
The treaty is seen as an attempt by China to dispel any notion it is a threat.
Li said China was willing to sign legal documents with more countries on good-neighbourliness and friendship.
Still, he reiterated China’s resolve to safeguard its sovereignty and its position that disputes over the South China Sea should be settled bilaterally rather than collectively or through arbitration.
The Philippines, one of the Asean claimants, has irked China by seeking international arbitration over China’s claims to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea.
Diplomatic sources from the Philippines reacted coolly to China’s treaty proposal, saying it lacked substance and was similar to a 2012 proposal made by Manila and ignored by Beijing.
Asean leaders hoped to persuade their giant neighbour to take a less bellicose approach to the overlapping claims when they met the Chinese leader behind closed doors on Thursday.
But despite the backroom talk, Asean as a group has been reluctant to antagonise China. Its Chairman’s Statement on Thursday showed little change since foreign ministers met in August.
“We remain concerned over the situation in the South China Sea,” the group said without mentioning China.
The Philippines and Vietnam have sought closer US ties to counter what they see as China’s aggression.