Chinese leader Xi Jinping says his country will not seek dominance over Southeast Asia or bully its smaller neighbours as friction over the South China Sea intensifies.
China has repeatedly sought to overcome concerns about its rising power and influence in the region, particularly its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea that overlaps with claims by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines.
“China resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics, wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or even less, bully the small,” Xi said on Monday at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference.
Xi’s remarks came days after Chinese coastguard ships blocked and sprayed a powerful stream of water at two Philippine boats carrying supplies to troops at a disputed South China Sea shoal and forced them to turn back.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the incident, referring to the shoal by its Philippine name.
“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” Duterte said at the meeting.
‘Sea of peace’
Duterte also called on China to respect the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which establishes maritime entitlements and sovereign rights over maritime zones, along with a 2016 Hague arbitration ruling that mostly invalidated China’s South China Sea claims.
China has refused to recognise the ruling.
“We must fully utilise these legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity,” Duterte said.
On Monday, the Philippines redeployed the two supply boats to provide food to marines based at Second Thomas Shoal on board a World War II-era warship it had deliberately run aground in 1999 in a move to fortify its claim.
Chinese vessels have surrounded the shoal and demanded the Philippines tow away the ship, the BRP Sierra Madre.
China has sought to strengthen its presence in the waterway, home to crucial shipping routes, fish stocks, and undersea oil and gas deposits, by building airstrips and other features on islands created by piling sand and concrete atop coral reefs.
China’s powerful navy, coastguard, and maritime militia have also sought to block moves by regional countries to exploit resources within their exclusive economic zones, and it strongly objects to operations by the US and other foreign militaries in the area.
China and ASEAN have for years been negotiating a code of conduct for handling matters in the South China Sea, but those talks have made little progress.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob also raised the sea in his speech at the ASEAN conference, saying: “As a claimant state, Malaysia firmly views that matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully and constructively in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law.
“Malaysia calls on all countries to remain committed towards maintaining the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and trade,” his office quoted him as saying. “To this end, all parties should exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that may be deemed provocative, which could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the area.”
In other comments, Xi said peace was the “greatest common interest” for all sides, and China would exert its utmost to avoid conflict.
“We must be the constructors and protectors of regional peace, insist on dialogue instead of confrontation, partnership and nonalignment, and join hands in dealing with various negative factors that threaten to undermine peace,” Xi said.
“We must practice true multilateralism and insist on handling international and regional matters through negotiation.”
The US on Friday warned China that an armed attack against Philippine vessels would invite an American response under its treaty obligations to the Southeast Asian nation.
The European Union also called on “all parties to respect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea”.