China leader stresses strengthened ties amid rising tensions in the South China Sea

Amid concerns over China’s defense buildup in the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping stressed that the Asian giant is pursuing stronger relations with Southeast Asian countries with a focus on the 2030 mega-project for economic integration.

The leaders of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam concluded two days of talks at the sprawling Zhongnanhai state guesthouse Saturday, focusing on growing economic and security issues in the region.

“History has shown that peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region is not contingent on anyone’s mastery of military power,” Xi said in remarks on the sidelines of the summit. “No one should look at all of us with envy or conspiracy,” said Xi, adding that only by making concerted efforts would security and development thrive.

In his speech, Xi reiterated that the controversial Belt and Road initiative would be “an engine of new growth” in the region. The initiative, China’s biggest overseas project since the Silk Road, seeks to build a physical network of transport, trade and economic exchanges connecting China to South and Southeast Asia and beyond.

He also said that while the Belt and Road did not seek to dominate in the region, “its goal is to firmly cement China’s place as a force to be reckoned with in international relations.”

Washington has criticized China’s efforts to build an extensive network of new ports, highways and railroads, and raise investment in security-sensitive countries in the region like Cambodia and the Philippines. Xi has sought to dispel fears over Chinese military buildup, stressing that the islands China has reclaimed from the South China Sea will have only civilian uses.

Beijing’s effort to boost its military posture in the South China Sea is both controversial and unnerving to neighbors.

While insisting China will continue to maintain peace in the region, Xi said there are some differences on the issue. “Whether and when China invades the other country, that issue is completely different,” he said.

China’s sweeping acquisition of land in the South China Sea has been disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, though Beijing has long insisted it has indisputable sovereignty over the waters. It has stepped up its construction and civilian projects in the area, though many nations have complained that China is using the so-called so-called “nine-dash line” map to cast China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as legal.

Xi reiterated that the dispute should be resolved through bilateral consultations and exchanges.

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