China has called on Southeast Asian countries to engage in direct talks over disputed South China Sea islands amid growing tensions in the region.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang made the comments during an address to a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, state news agency Xinhua reported.
“In recent years, the South China Sea disputes, which should have been addressed by directly concerned countries through negotiation and talks, have been played up to become a problem concerning the South China Sea’s peace and stability and the freedom of navigation,” Li Keqiang said.
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the energy-rich South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Beijing is allegedly changing the Spratly archipelago by turning its reefs into artificial islands and also constructing airfields and other facilities on some of them.
Washington has sided with China’s rivals in the territorial dispute, with Beijing accusing the United States of meddling in the regional issues and deliberately stirring up tensions in the contested waters.
The US, however, has accused Beijing of undergoing what it calls a land reclamation program in the South China Sea by building artificial islands in the disputed areas.
The Chinese premier, meanwhile, pointed to the intervention of some countries outside the region, stating that the issue is in nobody’s interest.
“Only by expanding our common interests and seeking common ground can we narrow our differences,” he said, adding that China will allocate infrastructure loans totaling USD 10 billion to the Southeast Asian countries.
Founded in 1967, ASEAN consists of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.