China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang proposed a "friendship" treaty with Southeast Asian countries on Thursday but reiterated that territorial disputes in the East Sea should be settled directly between the countries involved.
China, Taiwan and four Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have competing claims in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China 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 a summit of East Asian countries in Myanmar.
The treaty is seen as an attempt by Beijing to dispel any notion it is a threat.
Li added China was willing to sign legal documents with more countries in the region on good-neighborliness and friendship.
Still, the Chinese premier reiterated Beijing's resolve to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and its position that disputes concerning the East Sea should be settled directly rather than collectively or through arbitration.
The competing maritime claims have formed an undercurrent of tension at the East Asian and ASEAN summits in Myanmar this week.
The Philippines, one of the ASEAN claimants, has previously irked Beijing by seeking international arbitration over China's claims to about 90 percent of the East Sea.
Diplomatic sources from the Philippines reacted coolly to China's treaty proposal, saying that it lacked substance and was similar to a 2012 proposal made by Manila and ignored by Beijing.
Li will meet the heads of ASEAN countries behind closed doors later on Thursday, with Southeast Asian leaders hoping to persuade their giant neighbor to take a less bellicose approach to overlapping claims in the East Sea.
The Philippines and Vietnam have sought closer US ties to counter what they see as China's aggression in the region.
In May, China sent an oil drilling rig to waters claimed by the Vietnamese. The move sparked deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
US President Barack Obama, also in Naypyitaw for the East Asian summit, held his first formal meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on Thursday.
US President Barack Obama meets with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the 25th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Naypyitaw November 13, 2014. Photo: Reuters
"We very much share the belief that it is important for all countries in the region, large and small, to abide by rules based norms in resolving disputes," Obama said.
On Oct. 2, the US decided to start easing a nearly four-decade lethal arms embargo on Vietnam.
At the meeting, the two leaders also welcomed burgeoning bilateral ties. They stressed the importance of fast-tracking negotiations on the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious regional trade pact.
“Vietnam is resolved to join hands with the US and other countries to actively accelerate the TPP negotiation process on the basis of ensuring balanced interests of the concerned parties and providing developing members, including Vietnam with a reasonable transition period for the implementation of the pact.” Dung was quoted by news website VOV as saying.
Proponents say the TPP will create a free-trade zone stretching from Australia to Peru with $28 trillion in economic output, or 39 percent of total global trade, according to a recent Bloomberg story.
If passed, the TPP will closely link the economies of the US, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Many in the pro-TPP camp see the pact as key to ensuring the US will continue to write the rules for trade in the Asia-Pacific region and stay central to the global economy at a time when many are organizing their manufacturing, agriculture, and service sectors around China.
"The TPP is being sold as a counter to the domination of China and although the extent to which it will hurt China is unknown, the recent events have created an environment in which anything that hurts China is interpreted as being good," Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), told Thanh Nien News.