China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Saturday said the country had “a firm will to defend its territorial sovereignty” and warned of an increasingly “complex” neighbourhood environment amid festering disputes with Japan and over the South China Sea.

Mr. Yang said “the complexities in China’s neighbourhood environment had increased”, describing regional tensions as a “wind that refuses to subside”.

“With respect to territorial disputes, China has a firm will to defend its territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interest,” he said, speaking to journalists at his annual press conference held on the sidelines of the on-going session of the Chinese Parliament, or National People's Congress (NPC).

“At the same time," he added, "China has a sincere wish to handle and resolve differences through negotiations and consultations in order to uphold peace and stability in the region.”

The Foreign Minister, who is expected to step down from his post following the NPC, has been tipped to be promoted to the post of State Councillor – a rank below Vice Premier in the Cabinet – in place of top diplomat Dai Bingguo, who will retire next week.

Looking ahead to the next decade of China’s diplomacy under new leader Xi Jinping, who will be appointed as the next President at the NPC, Mr. Yang said China “will continue to follow a policy of building good neighbourly relationships and partnerships with countries in our neighbourhood”.

China has in recent months sparred with Japan over disputed East China Sea islands, with both countries dispatching naval vessels and even scrambling aircraft to enforce their claims. Beijing is also involved

in a complicated dispute with at least 10 countries over the waters and islands of the South China Sea.

The long-running border dispute between China and India, while seen by Chinese officials as a less pressing problem with both countries shelving the boundary question to push ties in other areas such as trade, is also a persistent irritant to bilateral ties.

Despite the problems, Mr. Yang pointed out, economic relations between China and its neighbours had flourished, reaching $ 1.2 trillion last year – even exceeding China’s trade with Europe and the U.S. combined.

The Foreign Minister said Mr. Xi, the new President, will make his first State visit to Russia later this month, adding that he would make stops in Tanzania and in the Republic of Congo.

Mr. Xi will also attend the BRICS summit in South Africa on March 26. He is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the summit’s sidelines, marking the first major engagement with India and

China following the leadership transition here. “The BRICS mechanism has become an important force in countering the international financial crisis, driving world economic growth, improving governance of the global economy and promoting greater democracy in international relations,” Mr. Yang said.

“[The new Chinese President’s visit] will play an important role in strengthening partnerships among BRICS countries, improving the BRICS mechanism and boosting cooperation,” he added.

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