Beijing: Chinese leader Xi Jinping says his country will not seek dominance over Southeast Asia or bully its smaller neighbours, amid ongoing friction over the South China Sea.

Xi made the remarks Monday during a virtual conference with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, marking the 30th anniversary of relations between the sides.

“China resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics, wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or even less, bully the small,” Xi said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

China has repeatedly sought to overcome concerns about its rising power and influence, particularly its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea that overlaps with the claims of ASEAN members Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.

Xi’s remarks came days after Chinese coast guard ships blocked and sprayed a powerful stream of water at two Philippine boats carrying supplies to troops at a disputed South China Sea shoal.

China has sought to strengthen its presence in the waterway, home to crucial shipping routes, fish stocks and undersea oil and gas deposits, by building airstrips and other features on islands created by piling sand and concrete atop coral reefs.

China’s powerful navy, coast guard and maritime militia have also sought to block moves by regional countries to exploit resources within their exclusive economic zones, and it strongly objects to operations by the US and other foreign militaries in the area.

China and ASEAN have for years been negotiating a code of conduct for handling matters in the South China Sea but those talks have made little progress of late.

China remains a crucial market for Southeast Asian countries as well as a source of investment, and ASEAN has sought to avoid conflict with Beijing. China also has strong ties with ASEAN members Cambodia and Laos and has refrained from criticising Myanmar, where military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing has cracked down relentlessly on the opposition since ousting the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.

Min Aung Hlaing was barred from representing his country at the last ASEAN summit, and it wasn’t immediately clear who attended Monday on behalf of Myanmar.

The censure came after an ASEAN envoy was prevented from meeting Suu Kyi and other political detainees as part of a proposed dialogue on easing the crisis, in which security forces are estimated to have killed almost 1,200 civilians. The government has claimed a lower death toll.

In other comments, Xi said peace was the greatest common interest” of all sides and China would exert its utmost to avoid conflict.

We must be the constructors and protectors of regional peace, insist on dialogue instead of confrontation, partnership and nonalignment, and join hands in dealing with various negative factors that threaten to undermine peace,” Xi said.

We must practice true multilateralism and insist on handling international and regional matters through negotiation,” Xi said. (AP)

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