China's Vice President and anointed next leader Xi Jinping on Friday assured his country's neighbours that Beijing wanted peaceful relations and would not “behave in a hegemonic manner”, amid rising concerns in some quarters about the country's assertiveness in handling regional disputes.

Mr. Xi, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) General Secretary following next month’s Party Congress, told a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries that China would seek closer economic linkages with the region and wanted to settle all disputes peacefully.

His comments come amid strains between China and several of its neighbours over the South China Sea, whose islands and waters are contested by more than half a dozen countries. Recent months have seen Chinese vessels clashing with those from Vietnam and Philippines, while tensions between China and Japan over disputed East China Sea islands have also resurfaced, leading to some perceptions that Beijing was taking more assertive positions in handling disputes.

Mr. Xi attempted to address those fears in a speech to a China-ASEAN business meeting that opened in southern Guangxi on Friday.

“We are firm in safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and are committed to resolving difference with neighbours concerning territorial land, territorial sea and maritime rights and interests peacefully through friendly negotiations,” he was quoted as saying by the State-run Xinhua news agency.

“We will never seek hegemony,” he added, “nor behave in a hegemonic manner.” Calling for closer regional connectivity to boost economic linkages, the Vice President said China was ready to set up an investment and financing platform to increase land and maritime connectivity. China is also investing heavily in building high speed-rail links that could ultimately run from southern Kunming, through Laos and Thailand, to Singapore.

“The more progress China makes in development and the closer its links with the region and the world, the more important it is for the country to have a stable regional environment and a peaceful international environment,” Mr. Xi said.

China, he said, was “deeply aware of the importance of development and the preciousness of peace”, having gone through turbulence in its recent history.

Mr. Xi is widely expected to emerge as China’s next leader for the coming decade following this year’s once-in-ten year transition. He is likely to take over the position of CPC General Secretary following the 18th Party Congress, which, sources said, is likely to be convened in mid-October. He will assume the role of President in March, following the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament.

Whether or not Mr. Xi will also be given control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – which will determine to what extent he will be able to exert his own influence and shape the military’s outlook amid increasing regional tensions – is still unclear.

At the previous leadership transition in 2002, the former President Jiang Zemin held on to his position as the head of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for two years before allowing Mr. Hu, his successor, to assume control of the PLA.

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