Chinese President Hu Jintao called Friday for Asian nations to better cooperate in security matters in a region increasingly beset by rival territorial claims — often involving China.
Hu offered only vague ideas about a "new security concept," but his remarks appeared aimed at reassuring neighbors unsettled by Beijing's soaring economic growth and by its beefed-up military, which has been more assertive in staking China's territorial claims.
"We need to seek common ground while shelving differences and enhance common security," Hu told participants at a regional gathering in southern China. "We should reject the Cold War mentality and zero-sum approach, and advocate a new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination."
Chinese leaders typically use the expression "Cold War mentality" to refer to perceptions of China as a threat, especially in the U.S. and the West.
The remarks appeared significant in part because of the audience: the Boao Forum for Asia, which China bills as an Asian version of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss town of Davos. On the stage with Hu were representatives of major countries: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, South African President Jacob Zuma, South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik and former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
While Beijing formally disavows all military alliances, it has sought to boost trust through exchanges of visits and joint exercises with other armed forces in the region and further abroad.
Elsewhere in his speech, Hu praised pan-Asian responses to crises from the Indian Ocean tsunami, the global financial meltdown and Japan's devastating March earthquake, while warning that the continent remained riven by structural economic problems, disparities in development, and security challenges that threaten stability.
"As the trend toward multi-polarity and economic globalization deepens, the people of Asia have the major task of maintaining both development and stability," he said.
That could be a reference to China's growing power. Hu's speech was intended to signal that China, which overtook Japan last year as the world's second largest economy, embraces this new role as a "responsible big country," said Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
"He pointed out the principles for reforming the international order and what responsibilities big countries should bear for that," Yan said.
The appeals for greater cooperation come as China has sparred in the past two years with most of its maritime neighbors over islands or rights to exploit the seas. Boao itself is on Hainan Island in the South China Sea — a region of key shipping lanes that is at the center of overlapping sovereignty claims between China and five other governments.
China has sought to ease concerns over its claim to the entire sea and its island groups, saying it would not impede transit and trade through the region. But, in recent years, it has called the South China Sea a vital national interest and seized fishing boats from the Philippines and Vietnam, prompting a regional backlash that has drawn those countries closer to the United States, the region's dominant naval power.
At the same time, Japan and South Korea have also strengthened their military alliances with the United States, partly as a result of China's military expansion and Beijing's reluctance to condemn provocative acts by communist ally North Korea.