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China's Xi urges improved Southeast Asia ties in Indonesia speech
by Staff Writers
Jakarta (AFP) Oct 03, 2013


China's Xi Jinping said Thursday Beijing's territorial disputes with Southeast Asia should be resolved in a "peaceful manner" as he tried to mend frayed ties on his first presidential trip to the region.

In the first ever speech by a foreign leader to the Indonesian parliament, Xi addressed the maritime disputes which critics say have been rekindled by Beijing's increasingly assertive claims to almost the entire South China Sea

Xi, who became president in March, told lawmakers that China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should settle territorial and maritime disputes "in a peaceful manner so as to safeguard regional stability and peace".

"Southeast Asia is one important hub of the maritime Silk Road. China is ready to increase maritime cooperation with ASEAN," he said.

"China attaches great importance to Indonesia's role in ASEAN and is ready to work together with Indonesia and other ASEAN countries to make the two sides share the same prosperity."

China has overlapping territorial claims to parts of the sea with several other countries, and tensions have run particularly high with Vietnam and the Philippines.

Analysts said Xi's speech had a conciliatory tone aimed at repairing relations but offered little new of substance.

Li Mingjiang, China programme director at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Xi's tone was one of openness, reinforcing a more accommodating and relaxed attitude to the disputes.

"This shift is already taking place -- we haven't seen any aggressive patrolling in the South China Sea since Xi took the leadership," Li said.

But Bantarto Bandoro, a professor at the Indonesian Defence University, told AFP he saw nothing new in Xi's comments.

"China will certainly not sacrifice its principles of sovereignty," he said.

There was no sign of Beijing bending to ASEAN's long-held demand that China accept a legally binding code of conduct for handling disputes in the South China Sea.

Analysts, however, agreed that Xi's visit to Southeast Asia -- just after US President Barack Obama cancelled parts of his visit to the region -- was a blow to the much-vaunted US "pivot" towards Asia.

"You have this sharp contrast between Xi Jinping and Obama, so people will conclude that China is a near neighbour and it is committed," said Li.

Bandoro said Obama's postponement of visits to the Philippines and Malaysia due to the US government shutdown was a "very bad decision".

"It's not only a blow to the US's strategic objectives, but it might damage the image of the US in the Southeast Asian region," he said.

Obama's attendance at an APEC summit in Bali and the East Asia summit in Brunei -- where he could meet leaders of powers like Russia and China, key players on Syria, Iran and North Korea -- is in doubt.

US analysts also questioned the cancellations.

Brookings Institution scholar Joshua Meltzer said that while US allies would understand Obama's decision, it sends a negative signal.

"I don't think they question the sincerity of the policy of rebalancing towards Asia," he said, but warned there were questions about the administration's capacity to "execute" the pivot in its entirety.

In Xi's case, the decision to ask him to address the Indonesian parliament demonstrated a dramatic improvement in relations between Jakarta and Beijing in recent years.

Indonesia broke off diplomatic ties with China in the 1960s, accusing it of supporting what it described as an attempted coup by the Indonesian communist party.

Ties remained frosty for more than two decades and diplomatic relations were only restored in the 1990s.

Xi's trip also had a strong trade focus and on Thursday Indonesian and Chinese business leaders signed deals worth $28.2 billion, in the mining, energy and transport sectors.

They included a $1.5 billion investment from state-run China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC) to build a 30-kilometre (18-mile) monorail network in the capital Jakarta, in an effort to ease the city's notorious traffic jams.

The Chinese president arrived on Wednesday for a two-day visit and was given a ceremonial welcome in the capital, before holding talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

After his visit to Indonesia, Xi will head to neighbouring Malaysia and then to the APEC forum on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

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