China today sought to reassure Southeast Asian countries that it is a friendly neighbor, as all sides worked to ease tensions that spiked over a maritime territorial dispute.
Chinese diplomats told their counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a summit in Bali that China was intent on improving ties that had soured recently over the South China Sea row.
“We are determined to increase our co-operation with ASEAN countries. We’re looking to the future, we have a broad, bright future,” Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters on the sidelines of the talks.
“We want to be a good friend, good partner, good neighbor with ASEAN countries.”
Liu made his comments shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his 10 ASEAN counterparts formally endorsed a set of guidelines to lay the framework for a potential code of conduct in the South China Sea.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, along with China and Taiwan, have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, an area believed to hold vast oil and gas resources.
The guidelines approved on today were seen as a small but important circuit breaker after the Philippines and Vietnam had accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the South China Sea.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Bali on Thursday night after a visit to India, where she called on the South Asian nation to take a more assertive leadership role in the region.
Clinton’s comments were widely seen as reflecting a US desire for India to emerge as a counter-weight to China’s fast-expanding power.
Ahead of her arrival, Chinese vice foreign minister Liu spoke in detail about the economic benefits for Southeast Asia of closer ties with China.
“China is becoming the largest trading partner of ASEAN and ASEAN is becoming the third-largest trade partner of China,” Liu said.
“So cooperation with China is increasing dramatically, developing very fast.”