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 the countries involved.
China, Taiwan and four 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 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-neighbourliness and friendship.
Still, the Chinese premier reiterated Beijing’s resolve to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and its position that disputes concerning the South China 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 South China 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 neighbour to take a less bellicose approach to overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
The Philippines and Vietnam have sought closer U.S. 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama, also in Naypyitaw to attend the East Asian summit, will hold his first formal meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dong on Thursday.
U.S. engagement with Vietnam has entered a new phase in recent months after a flurry of high-level visits that culminated in the Oct. 2 decision by Washington to start easing a nearly four-decade lethal arms embargo.
Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and Jared Ferrie in NAYPYITAW; Editing by Jeremy Laurence