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China hopes to maintain stability in South China Sea – Premier Li

BEIJING Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday that China hopes to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea by pushing forward with negotiations for a code of conduct for rival claimants in the disputed waters.

Addressing a news conference at the end of the annual meeting of China’s parliament, Li said that “substantive progress” has been made on the code.

Negotiations began in 2010 for an agreed upon set of rules between China and the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) aimed at avoiding conflict in the South China Sea.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said last week that a first draft of the code was ready and that tension in the waterway had eased noticeably. [nL3N1GL21Z]

China lays claim to almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the waters that have rich fishing grounds, along with oil and gas deposits.

Li reiterated China’s stance that the issue is a regional affair that should be “decided and resolved by the countries directly involved.”

“China does not want to see any party feeling compelled to choose sides under the influence on a Cold War mentality,” he said, without elaborating.

The United States has criticized China’s construction of man-made islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free of movement.

China has long called for what it terms “countries outside the region” – generally a reference to the United States – to stay out of the dispute, saying China and Southeast Asia are determined to resolve things peacefully.

Li said that China and the United States’ could widen areas of cooperation in the Asian-Pacific to provide opportunities to ASEAN countries “instead of making ASEAN countries feel that (U.S.-China interaction) might be a source of trouble.”

He did not directly mention the U.S. stance on the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Kevin Yao; Writing by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)