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China's Xi sidesteps SE Asia pressure over South China Sea disputes

China's President Xi Jinping walks during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta October 2, 2013. Xi is on a two-day vis
China's President Xi Jinping walks during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta October 2, 2013. Xi is on a two-day vis

By Kanupriya Kapoor

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping showed no sign of bending to Southeast Asian pressure to resolve increasingly irascible territorial disputes over the South China Sea on Thursday, simply repeating calls for dialogue.

Xi, in the first address by a foreign leader to Indonesian MPs, made no reference to regional demands, echoed in Washington, that Beijing deal with the rival claims through multilateral talks rather than with individual negotiations.

The issue is certain to overshadow two regional summits next week that Xi will attend. But while Xi is touring Southeast Asia, including signing off on multibillion dollar deals with Indonesia, U.S. President Barack Obama has had to cancel trips to the Philippines and Malaysia because of the U.S. government shutdown.

The U.S. crisis has also put into doubt Obama's attendance at the two regional summits at a time when Washington has been promoting its strategy of putting more emphasis on its ties with Asia.

"As for the disagreements and disputes between China and certain Southeast Asian nations on territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, both sides must always uphold the use of peaceful methods ...to maintain the broad picture of bilateral relations and regional stability," he told MPs on the second and last day of his visit to Southeast Asia's largest country.

"China's development is a force for peace and friendship in the world, bringing development opportunities for Asia and the world and not threats."

Last month, the Philippines accused China of violating an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea, home to some of the world's most vital trade routes, by planning new structures on a disputed shoals.

The disputes have centred on concerns that China's use of its growing naval might to back claims to much of the oil- and gas-rich sea could spark a military clash.

Four of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Vietnam and the Philippines but not Indonesia, have overlapping claims with China. Indonesia has offered to mediate but has in the past criticized China for not showing more restraint over the disputes.

Next Tuesday sees the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Indonesian resort island of Bali. After that, Xi and several other leaders will head to Brunei for the East Asia summit.

"What we wanted to hear from President Xi Jinping was whether China has the goodwill to resolve the South China Sea issue ... But he didn't address the issue at all, so I'm disappointed," legislator Tantowi Yahya told Reuters.

Xi has used his visit try to lift relations in the region, saying China hoped trade with ASEAN would reach $1 trillion by 2020. He flies later in the day to Malaysia.

China is already Indonesia's biggest trading partner after Japan. The two were expected to finalize a raft of deals, mainly in the mining sector, worth more than $30 billion during Xi's visit.

Only about a third of the members of the combined houses attended the speech, the first such address by a foreign leader.

(Addtional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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