Chinese premier strikes mild tone on regional disputes

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang listens to a question from a reporter, in foreground, during a press conference after the closing session of the annual National People's Congress held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Wednesday.(AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

China sees no contradiction between its insistence on safeguarding territory it claims and its desire for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, Premier Li Keqiang said Wednesday.

Striking a moderate tone, Li also said China was comfortable with a continued US presence in the region, despite its past characterization of Washington, Australia and others as unwelcome interlopers. China can "engage in cooperation with them in the Asia-Pacific and manage well our differences," he said.

Li's remarks at a news conference following the close of China's annual legislative session were more circumspect than those last week by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who sternly warned that Beijing would not permit other nations to infringe on its sovereign rights in the strategic South China Sea.

Wang also rejected accusations that China was militarizing the area by building man-made islands and topping them with airstrips, turning the accusation back on the United States.

While Li did not address any disputes directly, he reaffirmed China's desire for a calm regional environment and good neighborly relations, saying differences could be handled through diplomatic means.

Although China's commitment to upholding its sovereignty and territorial integrity is "totally unambiguous," Li said it would also be a "powerful force" for world peace.

"We hope that countries from both inside and outside the region can do more to benefit regional stability and not the opposite," Li said. "Otherwise, no one benefits."

The US, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have complained that China's island building project has raised tensions by changing the status quo in the area, where six Asian governments have overlapping claims. The South China Sea includes sea lanes through which more than US$5 trillion in global trade passes each year, along with rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits.

Despite China's strong objections, the US Navy says it will continue to sail and fly past the new Chinese islands. The commander of the Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Lori Robinson, said earlier this month that Washington urged other nations to exercise their freedom to fly and sail in international airspace and waters claimed by China in the South China Sea "or risk losing it throughout the region."

Along with contesting disputed territory in the South China Sea, China also claims a chunk of Indian territory along their border, as well as a string of uninhabited East China Sea islands held by Japan.

Asked about Beijing's often tense relations with Tokyo, Li said that although ties have shown signs of an improvement, that is as yet "not fully established" and more concrete action is needed from Japan.

Relations between the two neighbors have been generally calm since violent anti-Japanese riots broke out in several Chinese cities in 2012 after Japan nationalized a chain of uninhabited islands claimed by China.(+)

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