In annual press conference, pledges to crack down on corruption and pollution

China's Premier Li Keqiang said Thursday during his annual interaction with the media that his government wanted to build a “favourable” neighbouring environment and narrow differences with neighbours, amid recently flaring territorial disputes.

Mr. Li said China had an “unshakeable will” in safeguarding its territory and sovereignty, but at the same time also had “an unwavering commitment” to ensuring a peaceful periphery.

“As a developing country, China needs a favorable neighbouring and international environment for its modernisation,” he said. “When neighbours interact with each other, it is only natural that sometimes they will run into problems of some kind or another. As long as they respect each other, properly manage differences and pursue mutual benefits, there will be harmonious sound instead of jarring noises.”

He cited the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence or Panchsheel — an idea jointly put forward by India and China — as defining China's neighbourhood diplomacy. His comments come amid rising concerns among many of China's neighbours about its assertiveness over several territorial disputes. China is currently involved in boundary disputes with India; with Japan over disputed East China Sea islands and with a number of countries over the South China Sea.

Over the past year, tensions with Japan have risen over disputed islands and over questions of wartime history, with ties between the two countries simmering in recent months.

China has, however, sought to tone down disputes over the South China Sea and with India. Mr. Li visited India last year — his first overseas visit since taking office — and hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October, when both sides signed a border defence cooperation agreement to formalise and expand confidence building measures.

While neither India nor Japan found mention in Mr. Li's remarks, the Premier instead highlighted China's warming ties with Vietnam — one among many claimants in the South China Sea dispute — as reflected in a joint maritime cooperation agreement signed during his visit to the country last year.

At his annual interaction with domestic and foreign journalists — a carefully choreographed affair where the questions are pre-screened by the Chinese Foreign Ministry — the Premier fielded several questions on economic issues, as well as on ties with the U.S., Europe, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

He also pledged to ramp up the battle against official graft, saying the government would show “zero tolerance” to the corrupt. “No matter how senior an official is, if he violates party discipline and the law of the country he will be seriously dealt with and punished,” he said.

Rising pollution

On the environment, he said the government would take steps to tackle rising pollution, with increasing public anger at the worsening smog enveloping many of China's cities.

He acknowledged that air pollution had become a “major issue for people's lives”. “For many people, the first thing to do [in the morning] is to check the PM 2.5 figure,” he said, referring to particulate matter pollution readings.

In a government work report issued last week outlining policies for the coming year, Mr. Li promised to “declare war on smog”. He said Thursday this did not mean “a war against nature”, but a “war against our own efficient and unsustainable model of growth and way of life”.

GDP growth

He reiterated confidence in the Chinese economy and indicated it would achieve the target of “about 7.5 per cent” growth, but added the government was “not preoccupied with GDP growth”. “The growth that we want,” he said, “is one that brings real benefits to the people, raises quality and efficiency of development, and contributes to energy conservation and environmental protection”

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