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China tries to ease tensions with Southeast Asia
by Staff Writers
Nusa Dua, Indonesia (AFP) July 21, 2011

China on Thursday sought to reassure Southeast Asian countries that it was a friendly neighbour, 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 neighbour 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 Thursday 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.

"Naturally we are delighted that this has been achieved. It is the product of hard work on the part of many," Indonesian Foreign Minister and summit chair Marty Natalegawa said.

"But I am not complacent, a lot of nurturing and confidence-building needs to be done."

And while Vietnam had voiced cautious optimism Wednesday over the guidelines, the Philippines maintained that China had not gone far enough this week and that it still intended to take its case to a United Nations-backed tribunal.

The Philippines has accused Chinese forces of acts such as shooting at Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea and harassing an oil exploration vessel.

Vietnam said in one incident, Chinese sailors had boarded a Vietnamese fishing boat and beaten its captain before stealing the crew's catch.

The foreign ministers are in Nusa Dua as part of a week of diplomacy that will finish on Saturday with the region's biggest annual security summit, which includes the United States and Russia.

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."

Earlier Thursday, the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers met the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.

North Korea's nuclear programme, climate change and global food shortages were among the issues discussed during the so-called ASEAN+3 talks.

Indonesia's Natalegawa said ASEAN voiced support for restarting stalled six-nation diplomatic efforts aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for diplomatic and economic benefits.

"We wish very much to see the six-party talks revived," he said.

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