World

'Safe passage' for all in S. China Sea: China

China willing to work with Asean for peace in disputed sea, says Duterte


As Asean leaders gather for their annual summits today, China is guaranteeing "safe passage" for all nations using the South China Sea.

It is also willing to work with Asean to maintain peace in the strategic waterway, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told reporters after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Danang, Vietnam, on Saturday.

"China will continue to work with Asean countries to safeguard peace, stability and prosperity of the South China Sea region," China's Xinhua news agency cited Mr Xi telling Mr Duterte, who will chair this week's meetings.

China claims almost all the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea, a major trade artery, and recent militarisation in the area has caused concerns.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims with China in the waters.

Mr Duterte said he and Mr Xi discussed the arms build-up in occupied islands in the waters, and Mr Xi told him: "No, it is nothing. He assured us again, 'Do not worry, you have all the rights of safe passage'."

Mr Duterte also touched on the issue at a business forum in Manila yesterday, saying: "The South China Sea is better left untouched."

Their remarks come as Asean's 10 members and China are set to announce the start of negotiations on a code of conduct to manage tensions in the South China Sea at the Asean-China Summit today.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend that meeting, which he and Mr Duterte will chair.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who arrived in Manila yesterday, is slated to speak as Singapore is currently country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations.

Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh said yesterday the code had to be legally binding to be able to prevent and manage incidents.

Asean and China have since 2002 had a declaration calling on claimants to exercise restraint and stop expansion in the disputed waters. But given the kind of incidents that have taken place in recent years, Mr Minh said the code "has to have that kind of distinct character that would bind parties to their commitments".

On Mr Xi's comments, he said: "Not only China but almost every party concerned has similar policies: respect for free passage, respect for freedom of overflight and maintenance of safety of navigation and respect for international law."

Tomorrow, the Philippines will hand over the chairmanship of Asean to Singapore, which will helm the grouping next year.

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