'Beijing not seeking to militarise South China Sea'

Indo Asian News Service

Canberra, March 24 (IANS) Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Friday said his country is not seeking to militarise the South China Sea and its presence in the area is only to maintain freedom of navigation.

"China never has any intention to engage in militarisation in the South China Sea," the visiting premier said at a press conference following a meeting in Canberra with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

"Chinese islands and reefs are primarily for civilian purposes. If there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight," he added.

China has built numerous military facilities on islets in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety but whose sovereignty has been disputed by five other countries, leading to an escalation of multilateral tensions in the region, Efe news reported.

Li noted that China is the leading global exporter and its economy depends on free transit in this maritime area, through which around $5 billion worth of goods pass every year, and which contains rich fishing, gas and oil resources.

He stressed that it is the responsibility of all countries in the region to maintain peace in the South China Sea, which is disputed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines, with the US having also increased its presence.

Li said China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are negotiating a code of conduct, an initiative that was praised by Turnbull.

The Australian leader also urged "all parties to refrain from taking any actions which would add to tensions, including actions of militarisation of disputed features".

Australia and the US have been concerned by the growing Chinese presence in the disputed seas, but Turnbull rejected as "incorrect" the view that Australia must take sides between Beijing and Washington.

China is Australia's biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to $150 billion.

At the press conference, Turnbull announced a series of new agreements to increase trade between the two countries, including China's decision to increase access to its market of frozen meat products.

The bilateral free trade agreement that came into force in 2015 had reduced tariffs on Australian beef products, but refrigerated meat did not have the same access to the Chinese market.

Li will continue his Australia visit to Sydney before leaving on Sunday for New Zealand.

--IANS

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