China downplays rising frictions with Asian neighbours; says BRI gaining momentum, trade booming

In recent months, tensions simmered between China and the Philippines as Manila, backed by the US, stepped up efforts to assert its rights over the part of the South China Sea

Updated - March 04, 2024 08:02 pm IST

Published - March 04, 2024 06:00 pm IST - Beijing

National People’s Congress spokesperson Lou Qinjian speaks during a press conference on the eve of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on March 4, 2024.

National People’s Congress spokesperson Lou Qinjian speaks during a press conference on the eve of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on March 4, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

China on March 4 sought to play down increasing tensions with its Asian neighbours over the simmering South China Sea dispute and the eastern Ladakh border issue with India, saying its initiatives like BRI are gaining momentum and trade is booming with regional countries.

China has given high priority to its neighbouring countries in its overall diplomatic work, Lou Qinjian, spokesperson for China’s parliament — the National People's Congress (NPC) — said while answering a question on China’s tensions with Asian neighbours including criticism that Beijing is turning the South China Sea dispute into “dangerous flashpoint” and the “unresolved issues” in the region.

Also read | Engaging China for India’s peace and progress: a pragmatic approach

Mr. Lou said, “all the countries in the Indo-China peninsula, Central Asia have committed to build a community with a shared future with China”, a preferred phrase of Chinese President Xi Jinping to highlight the future of China and the rest of the world is interlinked.

“You mentioned the South China Sea. Let me stress that China will continue to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. At the same time, we will properly handle relevant issues with relevant countries through dialogue and consultation and jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea”.

China claims most of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have counterclaims.

In recent months, tensions simmered between China and the Philippines as Manila, backed by the U.S., stepped up efforts to assert its rights over the part of the South China Sea firmly resisted by the Chinese coast guard ships.

Mr. Lou also spoke about China’s tensions with neighbouring countries without directly mentioning the eastern Ladakh border standoff with India since May 2020 which resulted in the Galwan Valley clash in June of that year.

Mr. Lou said, “China is opposed to bloc confrontation, small circles”, Beijing’s oblique references to the Quad alliance consisting of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia.

China’s cooperation with neighbouring countries is open and inclusive, not exclusive, he said.

Mr. Lou said the BRI has delivered more real benefits. Many regional countries have joined BRI and many projects have served as models and become important drivers for social and economic developments in respective countries.

The BRI is a multi-billion-dollar initiative launched by President Xi when he came to power in 2013. It aims to link Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Gulf region, Africa and Europe with a network of land and sea routes.

China, which celebrated the 10th anniversary of the BRI last year, said it had signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements with more than 150 countries and 30 international organisations across five continents.

Leaders in many countries faced allegations of siphoning off millions of dollars in funds allocated to especially unstainable projects leading their countries to huge debt owed to China.

China’s economic and trade cooperation with regional countries is booming, Lou said.

He also parried questions over how China views the impact on its relations with the U.S. if former American President Donald Trump gets re-elected, saying that it is an internal issue of the United States.

“No matter who becomes the President we hope the US can work in the same direction with China and work for a stable, healthy and sustainable China-U.S. relationship,” he said.

During his Presidency, Trump conducted a massive anti-China drive by launching a trade war with Beijing imposing huge tariffs on Chinese imports.

The flourishing China-U.S. ties were never the same again as his successor Joe Biden too carried out tough policy against China by imposing sanctions to restrict access to semiconductor chips which hampered Beijing’s massive drive to modernise its tech sector and firm policy to continue Washington's ties with Taiwan which China claims as part of its mainland.

"We just hope that the U.S. will honour its commitment, build stronger and five pillars for China-U.S. relations and translate the understandings, vision agreed” by Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi during their last year’s summit in San Francisco, he said.

Mr. Lou met the media ahead of the annual session of the NPC, which is often referred to as the rubber stamp parliament for its routine approval of the ruling Communist Party of China’s legislative agenda.

Thousands of the NPC delegates and the members of the advisory body the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPPCC) converged in Beijing for their weekly annual sessions to conduct legislative agenda.

The NPC will meet on Tuesday during which Premier Li Qiang will present the government’s work report as well as the budget including the defence budget for the endorsement of Parliament.

The Parliament session is taking place amid declining business sentiment in China as the government’s efforts to reverse the slowdown of the second-largest economy have not fructified.

Mr. Li was expected to announce more steps to revive the economy in his work report.

Mr. Li succeeded popular Premier Li Keqiang who died months after his retirement last year.

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